Batwoman: Unhappily Ever After

All art from Batwoman #17.

The spat between Batwoman’s creative and editorial teams has dominated comics news recently. And while the sexual orientation certainly makes the story sensational, this turn of events is solely about publisher DC’s editorial decisions.

The story that has dominated comics news is the spat between Batwoman’s creative and editorial teams. One blog post by writers J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman, stating that they are unable to work with DC Entertainment’s editors, started a firestorm of controversy over editorial inference and the marital prospects of gay and lesbian characters. While the claim of editorial interference would be enough to make news within the comics industry press, DC’s admitted stance against Batwoman Kate Kane marrying her love interest Maggie Sawyer magnified the events and pushed the story into the mainstream media. Deceptive headlines about DC being against gay marriage inevitably followed – that’s simply not the case as DC is against marriage for all of its characters. I watched all this unfold, following along on Twitter as other creators, fans and critics weighed in, sometimes with good insights and sometimes with wild speculation. While the sexual orientation of the characters certainly makes the story sensational (to a certain segment of the news media), this turn of events is solely about DC’s editorial decisions and how they have alienated creators to the point that the dirty laundry is being aired in public.

We’ve been aware of the accusations of DC’s editors making frustrating last minute changes to approved storylines for some time now. Within the last few years James Robinson, Rob Liefeld, Andy Diggle and Joshua Fialkov have all walked off books stating as much if not more. Creative shuffles with many of DC’s books have done nothing to quell these accusations. Williams and Blackman are just two more creators to join the chorus.

"In recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series," Williams and Blackman write in their blog post. "We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc's origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman's heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end."

This development comes after February's Batwoman #17, in which Kate proposed to Maggie. It marked the first lesbian wedding proposal in mainstream comics. The first gay wedding in comics happened over a year ago when Marvel’s Northstar married his boyfriend in the pages of Astonishing X-Men. It was also around that time that James Robinson reintroduced original golden age Green Lantern Alan Scott as a gay man in the pages of Earth 2. In a contemporaneous Iconographies, I offered my strongly-held opinion that the writers behind those stories should look to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz for advice on how to handle these narratives with integrity. Schulz rarely addressed social issues directly in his comic strips, but would often incorporate socially progressive ideas in matter of fact of ways, such as having African-American character Franklin appear in school with other characters – a move that drew the ire of southern newspaper editors. When Schulz was pressed to change his strips and not show Franklin in school with the other children, he responded, “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

Of course no one would have wanted to lose the widely popular Peanuts strip, so Schulz’s threat was never put to the test. In the case of Batwoman, it doesn’t appear that Williams and Blackman made a similar threat, although their resignation from the title is in keeping with the spirit of Schulz’s admirable artistic integrity.

We can speculate on the issues between DC editorial and the litany of creators that have walked off their books. There is certainly enough evidence to suggest at least some sort of dysfunction. Some of this is as a result of mandates established by the publishers. The one mandate at particular issue in this case is the one that bans marriage among DC’s superheroes. It’s not gay marriage as some news and gossip outlets reported, but all marriages that have fallen out of favor with DC’s top brass. Superman and Lois Lane are no longer married, nor are Barry Allen and Iris West.

There are many reasons for this position. As Young Avengers artist Jamie McKelvie noted on Twitter, “western fiction treats marriage as the happy ever after/final act. Superhero comics are forever in the second act which is why some view marriage as something to be categorically avoided in superhero stories.” McKelvie went on to say he doesn’t agree, neither do I, but the assessment is very much on target. As an audience we’ve been trained to see marriage as the end of the story, when in fact it is often the beginning.

But given the hyperbole that currently dominates online news and gossip sites, DC position to not allow a gay marriage appeared as a strike against marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights. It doesn’t help that these sites are often clueless about current events in comics. For example, entertainment gossip Website Pajiba wrote the headline “Let's Take A Second To Talk About Those Homophobic Dildo Tridents At DC Comics.” The author of the post then proceeded to mock DC for being homophobic and “woefully outdated.” The homophobia charge is categorically incorrect. As of this writing the article is still posted and has not been amended. It’s one thing to express an opinion, but it’s completely different to make an unfounded and grossly misinformed accusation.

DC is currently the only major publisher to have a gay or lesbian character headline a book, and Batwoman received the 2012 outstanding comicbook award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Plus DC’s decision to discontinue marriage among its characters is somewhat surprisingly in keeping with current social trends. In 2011, the Pew Research Center noted in a study that 51 percent of Americans were married, compared to 72 percent in 1960. Maybe having none is a bit of an extreme position, but in some respects that position is only magnifying current trends.

Over the past weekend at Baltimore ComicCon, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio took the position that Batwoman is clearly a member of the Bat family, and that as a result she shouldn’t have a happy personal life, that sort of existential philosophy wholly dominating those titles in the New 52 era. If anything DC might be outdated for holding the position that being married leads to a happy personal life.

Unfortunately for DC the news story in many respects has become about them not allowing a gay marriage. The charge of editorial interference, and one assumes editorial mismanagement, is bad enough to make headlines with the comics press, but when the focus becomes perceived intolerance, the bad publicity stretches across the media landscape.

Comics, as they have historically, should as often as possible mimic or spotlight current social issues, and the gay and lesbian community’s fight for marriage equality certainly deserves to be part of that spotlight. That DC would not take the opportunity to engage readers with a narrative that plays off that fight, especially with the recent defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, is more a case of their lack of creative thoughtfulness. This in most respects brings us right back to the actual reason for Williams and Blackman’s departure: a clear lack of editorial stewardship. That seems to be DC’s only fault in this case. Any other charge is out of line.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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