Monday, March 2, 2015

February in Review

BOOKS:

What I Read:

Books:
*The Supergirls; Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid (my review)
*The Returned by Jason Mott

Stats:
100% male / 0% female
100% American / 0% International
50%white/ 50%POC
0% ebook / 50% audiobook / 50% physical
50% fiction / 50% non-fiction


It's very easy to get either amazing or terrible stats when you only read two books! On the one hand this is probably one of my highest months (stats wise) for POC reads, but it's also terrible for female or international respresentation. But what are you going to do? Maybe it was because it was a pretty busy month (made busier by the sudden requirement to move) but I really dragged my feet blog-wise this month. I struggled to get any of my reviews from last month written and I made barely any progress with my reading. Hopefully I manage to bump myself out of this funk in March or I'll have to return a whole bunch of books to the library unread (which is the worst, it feels like book abuse).

FILMS:

What I saw:

*Jupiter Ascending - directed by the Wachowski siblings. Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
*Kingsman - directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson
*Big Eyes - directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz

Ugh, not a great month for films. Thank god I watched First Wives Club on DVD.  Jupiter Ascending is, wow, so bad. Like actually offensively dumb. It's such a pity because visually/effects wise it's top notch. If only they put as much attention and care into their titular character as they did the designs of the ships. It crosses into the category of great-bad movie a lot, but the action sequences are so dull and Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis have so little chemistry that I recommend leaving it until it comes out on DVD. Even then you should accompany it with copious amounts of alcohol. Kingsman was mostly fun and Taron Egerton is a delight, but it was a solidly B movie for me. It was fine and I laughed a lot (also swooned at Colin Firth in his amazing suits) but I don't know that it'd hold up to a repeat watch. And Big Eyes ... *sigh* I wanted to like it, I really did, but I just found it incredibly dull. I feel awful because I really love it when Tim Burton branches away from his Johnny Depp aesthetic but I could not get into it.

LIFE:

I had my final seminar on Friday and it went well! That means I'm on the home stretch for finishing my PHD! The finish line is finally in sight. It's been a long 3 years you guys. On another front, I'm moving! Not far, just to a new house but hey, any adventure is good adventure right? Tom and i have been in our little home for 4 years but a couple of things came together and made it pretty clear it was time for us to move on. I am hating packing boxes (uggggh books I love you and i hate you) but I'm excited! And that's really about it (are pressing phd deadlines and moving not enough for you people?!,  oh except that I started an 8 week challenge last week at my gym and i hate my life. Haha. How is everyone else treading so far?

Monday, February 23, 2015

(Audio)book review: The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid

The Supergirls; Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines

Written by: Mike Madrid

Read by: Colby Elliott

Published: 2009

Synopsis: A much-needed alternative history of American comic book superheroines—from Wonder Woman to Supergirl and beyond—where they fit in popular culture and why, and what these crime-fighting females say about the role of women in American society from their creation to now, and into the future. The Supergirls is an entertaining and informative look at these modern-day icons, exploring how superheroines fare in American comics, and what it means for the culture when they do everything the superhero does, but in thongs and high heels.

Has Wonder Woman hit the comic book glass ceiling? Is that the one opposition that even her Amazonian strength can’t defeat?
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What do you do when you're a book reader who has gotten into comics but are too lazy to read the years and years of back issues? You read a bunch of non-fiction books about said comics instead. And since just about everyone can already recite the history of many, many, many male heroes you obviously leapfrog over those non-fiction books and instead set your sights on the ones that are about the ladies and that dastardly F word (dare I say it?), feminism. Females don't get an easy ride in comics. They get an even rawer deal when it comes to female fans. It seems like whenever a fight breaks out between comic fans online there's a female superhero at the centre of it, and it's typically male fans (self-proclaimed REAL fans) versus female/feminist readers. Take for instance the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover controversy. It got to the point where it was near impossible to explain your dislike for that cover without "real" fans shutting you down for pushing the *ahem* feminazi agenda.


The over sexualisation of female characters is a huge issue for a lot of female readers. The Hawkeye Initiative is a brilliant art project that exemplified just how sexualised female heroes are compared to their male colleagues. Not only are women posed to best flaunt their breasts and ass, but their costumes, complete with boob and stomach windows, knee high stiletto boots and g-strings, are impractical and bordering on the absolutely absurd. But it's amazing to see how much we've internalised this type of characterisation of females, because it's often only when a male is replicated in those poses and costumes that the absurdity is actually evident.

Which is where Mike Madrid's book comes in. It's primarily a historical account of female heroes in comics but as the subheading suggests it also explores feminism and fashion as it relates to this history. I saw a few complaints on Goodreads which suggested that the focus on fashion was at the expense of a feminist examination of female superheroes but that's not how I experienced the book at all. When Madrid describes the changes in Wonder Woman's costume, whether that's the longer hems during the 1950s when the comics code authority came in or the elimination of just about all of her clothes sans g-string and bodice during the 1990s,  he does so in the context of the particular era. He isn't describing the g-string to be salacious but because the fact that the costume incorporated a g-string instead of a skirt or pair of pants is intimately tied to the sexual politics of comics at the time. The g-string wasn't just a random choice of the artist drawing Wonder Woman at the time, it was a requisite for female heroes during the "babe" era as Madrid describes it. Or at another point in the book Madrid points out that after J-Lo wore her scandalous Gammys dress every article questioned whether she could actually sit or walk in it while nowhere near that amount of attention has been paid to the accidents waiting to happen that so many female heroes are costumed in while they attempt to save the world and wrangle the bad guys. I did listen to this as an audiobook though, so perhaps the reader's inflection and tone made it clear that Madrid wasn't salivating over the ladies but critiquing a very important component of the character, while that distinction isn't quite as obvious in the text.

This book is fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it's interesting to see how the real world impacted the comics world, especially when it came to the female characters. When WWII hit and women were needed in the workforce, super-heroines suddenly became a lot stronger and were all about helping with the war efforts. But when the war ended and the men came home, the female heroes were also relegated to smaller roles and positions as side kicks again much like the women who were forced to become secretaries and housewives again. Even Wonder Woman, everyone's go to feminist superhero icon was relegated to being the freaking secretary of the early Justice League even though she was stronger and more powerful than most of the men! However it's frustrating to see how secondary women have always been in comics. It wasn't that I was surprised by this really, even today female characters are left off of merchandise and relegated to support positions, but I hadn't ever really considered how rarely female heroes were written for women. With the exception of Wonder Woman, a great number of female heroes began as female sidekicks to their male characters. They were occasionally included to draw in female readers in the 1940s and 1950s, but they were essentially a sexy way to hook young boys into keeping up their subscriptions to Superman or Batman. Or, in the case of Batwoman, they were included to dispel rumours of a homosexual relationship brewing between Batman and Robin. It's really no wonder then that female characters are still considered secondary to many male (and female to be honest) readers with origins like that.

Even though this book is about female heroes Madrid often used the dominant male heroes of the era to anchor his discussion of the females. While I felt like he occasionally spent too much on these parts, I actually think the book succeeded best when it was comparing the female characters with the male. A prime example of this was when he talked about the female iterations of popular male characters. Not only were the women always called 'girl' or 'miss' in their titles, automatically infantilising them and setting them up as secondary to the men, but their powers were often weighted towards female attributes. Case in point: Mary Marvel is Captain Marvel's twin but where he had a military title and powers like speed and stamina, she had the power of grace. A similar strong point of comparison was made early in the book where Madrid highlights the fact that while male heroes were heroes because they believed in justice, their female sidekicks were heroes because they were in love with the heroes. Talk about setting the females up to fade away into obscurity.

So if you are a fan of females and superheroes this book is made for you. It's not perfect and it does seem to skew heavily towards the first half of the 20th century (the 70s/80s/90s seem to race past) but if this is a subject that interests you I think it's probably a great book to read in collaboration with a number of other books on the subject. And at the very least it's a book full of delicious trivia and historical facts with a nice frosting of feminism which I know I always enjoy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #30


Saga (volume 2)

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by: Fiona Staples

Published: 2013

My thoughts: I'm finally reading Saga again! After the first volume I decided to quit it for awhile, not because I didn't enjoy it but because sometimes the pain of waiting for the next issue is just TOO MUCH. It took me a few pages to recall what happened in volume 1 (which apparently I never reviewed?) but once I got back into the rhythm of it, I was back in a big way. This series is, sort of, space Romeo and Juliet, at least in the sense that the two main characters (who loooove each other) are from two warring species and their togetherness and the procreation of their teeny tiny adorable baby is causing major problems.  Except in this volume these problems are magnified when Marko's parents and ex arrive on the scene (separately, and with very different intentions). It's hard to know where the series is going to go, other than forward and away from the people who wish this trio harm, but I'm enjoying the great writing and art nonetheless.


Fables: Sons of Empire (9)

Written by: Bill Willingham; illustrated by: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Gene Ha, Joshua Middleton, Inaka Miranda, Mike Allred.

Published: 2007

My Thoughts: This volume is a bit of a placeholder. It lays the groundwork for the upcoming Fabletown war and provides a little insight into the Adversary's war council but most of the volume is actually short 1-3 page stories featuring a bunch of the fables characters that has very little, if anything, to do with the war. I could imagine this being annoying to some, especially with the war teasers at the top of the volume, but I really liked the vignette style glimpses into life as a Fable. It's nice to see what life is like for them away from the calamitous fears of war and sadness over their lost homelands.



Princess Ugg (Volume 1)

Written by: Ted Naifeh; Illustrated by: Warren Wucinich

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: Princess Ulga finds herself completely out of her element when she leaves her mountain home to attend a princess finishing school. Gone are the battle axes and war helmets and in their place instead are musical instruments and princess gowns. While she knows she needs to attend the school if her mother's wish for her family to find peace with the frost giants is to be accomplished, she's alone and lonely and ridiculed by her fellow princesses. There is a lot to like about this book, like none of the princesses bar one are you standard blonde, white Sleeping Beauty type. There's the beautiful watercolour art used for flashbacks or dream sequences. And there's Ulga (or Ugg as the other princesses call her) who accepts herself in spite of being completely different, is freakin' ripped and determined to make princess school work. That said, I'm not totally sold on the series. There are some moments where the story lags or the writing is a little awkward, so I think I'll wait to get volume 2 from my library before decided whether I'll proceed or not.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

January in review

Happy first month of 2015!




BOOKS:

What I Read:

Books: 
*Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
*Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (my review)
*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (my review)
*A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Comics:
*Saga (2) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
*Saga (3) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
*Fatale: The Devil's Business by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips (my review)
*Fables (9) by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
*Princess Ugg (1) by Ted Naifeh, Warren Wucinich

Stats:

Books: 
40% male / 60% female
80% American / 20% International
80%white/ 20%POC
25% ebook / 50% audiobook / 25% physical
75% fiction / 25% non-fiction

Comics: 
**A quick note on stats. I've decided that this year I'm going to include artists in the stats as long as it's a single artist attached to the volume. The comics that tend to cycle through a series of artists within a volume will be left out completely because ugh, too complicated.**

80% male / 20% female
80% American / 20% International
80%white/ 20%POC
20% ebook / 80% physical

I decided to separate my comics from my books in 2015 because while I'm trying to diversify my reading, I'm not really trying as much when it comes to comics.  And since comics are still such a male and American dominated field it's really throwing out my stats and that's just not helpful. I'm feeling pretty good about my efforts to up my diversity though. I still need to work on the non-white/non-American angle, but I'm happy to see so many ladies up above. Also great? That I really loved all of my January reads, except Will Grayson, Will Grayson which was fine but not as shiny and great as the other three. I've almost finished Jason Mott's The Returned, and after that I think I might read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel. Feb will be a HUGE month for me uni-wise, I start teaching and I finally submit my PhD to the faculty, so I think aiming for finishing more than two books is probably incredibly unrealistic, so let's just go with those for the time being.

FILMS:

What I saw:

*Birdman - directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
*Taken 3 - directed by Olivier Megaton, starring Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen
*Into the Woods - directed by Rob Marshall, starring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt

2015 doesn't hold a lot of excitement for me, movie wise. I'm looking forward to the new Mad Max and Star Wars, but I'm going through a little superhero fatigue, so I'm not as excited for Avengers or Antman as I would have been 2 years ago. Birdman was one of the films I was excited for (ugh Australia and our eternal wait for movies) and it really delivered. I thought Michael Keaton was amazing and Alejandro González Iñárritu is an amazing director. I loved how the use of a single tracking shot translated the chaos of a play backstage, as well as the dysfunctional nature of most of the characters. I'm really pulling for them to win at least a couple of the Oscars, regardless of how pointless the Oscars have actually become. Into the Woods was alright, I thought the performances and staging were pretty good, but cutting Repunzel's story took a lot of the thematic edge out of the film. And while I loved Meryl Streep, I think Bernadette Peters will always be my witch.

LIFE:

Like I mentioned above, I'm getting ready to submit to the faculty. After I present at the end of February they'll provide me with some feedback to implement before my proper submission in May. Here's hoping they like what I've done and done tear it to shreds. To give myself a reason to keep living, I started learning German using the Duolingo app. I'd really wanted to pick up Japanese again, but they don't offer it unfortunately. If you've been thinking of trying to learn a language, or are even travelling overseas and want to pick up some basics it's pretty fantastic. It's free to use and I really like the way it teaches. I feel like I've picked up more in 2 weeks than I did in my first four years of Japanese in school.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

(Audio)book review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Written by: Mary Roach

Published: 2003

Synopsis: Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers some willingly, some unwittingly have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them (Via Goodreads)

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Death. It doesn't have to be boring.”


When I decided I wanted to try and read more non-fiction in 2015* I knew that Mary Roach would be among the first few authors I read. Her popular science books Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void have made the blogger rounds over the years and I've always made note to read her eventually. I ended up decided to start my Roach voyage with Stiff for a specific reason, death fascinates and terrifies me in equal measure.

As a non-religious lady I have no illusions that I will be reincarnated after death or find myself in a fluffy or fiery post-life environment but I find it absolutely inconceivable to imagine not being conscious. That's what scares me about death, the idea of not being me anymore. This was something that weighed heavily on me as a kid, I used to get worked up about the idea of dying so i tried to get past it by learning about death. This is a big reason why I'm a horror fan and more likely than not why I chose zombies as my area of research. They are, after all, a physical example of life without consciousness.

I might be more comfortable with the idea of death now but when faced with the reality of it I revert back to that childhood panic. In biology class I always loved dissecting hearts and eyeballs but put a full frog in me and I couldn't do it any more, the abstract suddenly became all too real. When I was 14 my mum sat me and my sisters down to have a discussion about organ donation and whether we wanted to "opt in or out". On the one hand of course I wanted to donate my organs to help someone else live, but to donate my organs means I'm dead and that wasn't a concept I was in any way ready to handle. I also have this irrational fear of being cremated and my ashes being separated between two locations. It's ridiculous because I don't believe that I'll be conscious (whether spiritually or physically) to be aware of this separation but I also have this weird need to be kept together after death. It's this whole big thing basically.

That's where this book comes in, this wonderfully, terrifying book that wraps up all of my fears and concerns in a handy 303 pages. The book not only looks at the various uses for cadavers but the common fears and concerns about death and our physical existence after it. One of the earliest chapters I found most interesting was to do with cadavers in medical schools. I knew cadavers were used for anatomy lessons but I didn't know that students often used the same cadaver for an entire year. The idea of the students bonding with their cadaver and eventually holding memorial services for them was actually really beautiful. Roach quotes one student at one of these memorials:
“One young woman's tribute describes unwrapping her cadaver's hands and being brought up short by the realization that the nails were painted pink. "The pictures in the anatomy atlas did not show nail polish", she wrote. "Did you choose the color? Did you think that I would see it? I wanted to tell you about the inside of your hands. I want you to know you are always there when I see patients. When I palpate an abdomen, yours are the organs I imagine. When I listen to a heart, I recall holding your heart.”
Death is a deeply personal thing and it's nice to know that even though a certain amount of distance is often needed for people who work frequently with cadavers, people who donate their bodies are still respected and their gift is appreciated. Because as the book demonstrates, if science hadn't had access to cadavers we probably wouldn't have half of the medical and societal advances that we do today. And at the end of the day I kind of think that was what this book was about. Yes it was about giving a historical account of the role of cadavers in science and related fields, but it's also about normalising death and giving people the information they need to consider donating themselves to science. We've all benefited so much from the cadavers that came before us that it's almost selfish to keep our bodies complete and whole only to be buried and left to rot.
It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more then half of the people in the position H's family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon's scalpel to save our own lives, out loved ones' lives, but not to save a stranger's life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you'd call her.”
There are of course religious and health reasons why someone wouldn't want to donate organs or their body to science and the book doesn't throw any judgement on people who make that decision. It's more aimed at the families who choose to opt out because the idea of splitting their husband or father or brother into pieces is too painful, even though the deceased person checked yes. It's about showing all the different ways that donations of limbs or organs help make life safer and better for future generations. It's about taking that frog and turning it back into the separate pieces so that you can once again see the big picture.  As Roach says:
"It's the reason we say "pork" and "beef" instead of "pig" and "cow."
But it's not all a PSA about donating bodies, I promise. There are gory and insane chapters about head transplants and cannibalism. Listening to the awful human concoctions people across the world (so much urine and feces) used to treat illnesses makes me so happy I live in the 21st century. I am glad that if I go to the doctor with a sore throat or painful back I don't have to worry about the phrase essence of gallbladder** popping up. And while more bodies could always be donated to science, at least we don't have med students paying their entry into school with dead bodies anymore.

Being a pop science book written by a journalist, this book is very accessible for non-science buffs. Having a body and knowing that they are things that exist is about as much prior knowledge as you need to have. It's funny and engaging and while I guess for people who are against donating or experimenting on cadavers the lighter tone might appear disrespectful and cavalier, I felt like she gave the appropriate gravitas when the situation called for it. A warning though, there are so pretty graphic descriptions of both human and animal dissection and experimentation so if things of this ilk are likely to turn your stomach I would maybe consider giving it a miss, or at least be prepared to skip ahead.


*Non-PhD related non-fiction because I already read a metric tonne of that stuff. 

**for example. I didn't take notes while I listened to this chapter so i can't remember exact titles but ugh, so much gross.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Graphic Novel Mini-Review #29

Fatale: The Devil's Business (2)

Written by: Ed Brubaker; illustrated by: Sean Phillips

Published: 2013

My Thoughts: Ah Brubaker, you've done it again. Volume 2 of Fatale takes place in the late 1970s so it isn't quite as noir-ish as the first volume, nor is it quite as mysterious. This volume gives us a much closer look at Jo, our ageless captivating fatale, although she's still as much of a closed book as she was in volume 1. She finds herself caught in a seedy situation when an actor and his ex (now dealer) sneak into her backyard after running away from a crime scene. It turns out that Jo has a past connection to the Mason-esque cult church that the two are running from and as the volume continues it gets messier and murkier and hints at Jo's mysterious past. I loved having a bit more of her perspective this volume even if there is still so much to learn before the series ends. Just as she entrances every man she comes into contact with, I found myself captivated in the sadness that surrounds her. Where has she been? What has she seen? The art beautifully compliments the mood of the comic, although there are times where secondary characters are hard to distinguish from one another.


My Friend Dahmer

Written and Illustrated by: Derf Backderf

Published: 2012

My Thoughts: I think this might be the first non-comic series comic I've read in awhile. Tom's brother bought it for us for Christmas and I eagerly read through a couple of days later. The subject of the comic is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously, it's a look at Jeffrey Dahmer before he was the Jeffrey Dahmer who murdered and raped and ate people. Second, it's fascinating in its complete dullness. Dahmer is a strange guy, for sure, but what high school didn't have the guy who put on weird voices or seemed to be dealing with his own hidden demons? As much as Backderf exclaims over his disbelief that no teachers ever took Dahmer aside or spoke to his parents, I'm not sure there was ever enough, judging off this comic, to really write home about. While Backderf paints a sad tale of a boy who grew up without much love or attention in a tiny town of few distractions and old-fashioned morals which made it difficult to come out as gay, what really hit me was that Dahmer could have been so many people I knew growing up. I knew people who smoked too much pot and drank themselves into comas every weekend. I saw people walk around our high school campus without ever really seeming to fit in or even wanting to. I knew people who struggled with coming out as gay, who battled with their parents or who were hurt by their parents disapproval or oblivion. This comic really hit home that anyone could be a serial killer. Most people won't be, but it's not like they're walking around with a giant sign reading "danger danger, future murderer" while slaughtering kittens in front of you. The book does get a little armchair psychologist-y at times and I think Backderf could have benefited from a little more inward examination but he's done a great deal of work to combine his personal anecdotes from high school with evidence that has since come out about Dahmer's first dalliances with animal mutilation, sexual identity and his first murder. It's sensational without being sensationalist.



Hawkeye: L.A Woman (3)

Written by: Matt Fraction; Illustrated by: Annie Wu, Javier Pulido

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: L.A. Woman is the collection of Hawkeye issues that focus on the lady Hawkeye, Kate Bishop. After being well and truly fed up with Clint/Hawkeye's self-destructive bullshit she decides to make her way to L.A to start fresh and a P.I. Kate felt a little less together in this collection than the previous two and I can't work out if it's just because she doesn't have the human wreck known as Clint Barton to be compared to or if she's actually more of a disaster in these pages. There definitely does seem to be a great deal more of the "she's grown up rich and hasn't ever really had to consider paying for accommodation or food or life" stuff than I think I remember from volumes 1 or 2. These were problems I battled with while reading the volume, but I also fell pretty hard for her almost instantly. Maybe her messy life is a condescending way to make a female superhero appeal more to general readers, but she also felt a bit like a grown up Veronica Mars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (what with the ass-kicking) which is always okay in my books. David Aja is off art duty this volume, and while I missed his stunning art I quite enjoyed Wu's take on the character. There was a lot more experimentation in terms of the different art styles, and I found the switches into the almost-chibi anime style a nice representation of Kate's arrested development. I am also totally on board for an Elliot Gould look-alike and stories that poke fun at the Hollywood persuit for eternal youth any day of the week.

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