The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

2013 in Books

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According to goodreads.com, I read 83 books in 2013. The beginning of a new year seems a good time to assess what is memorable among the reading material of the previous twelve months. I am an eclectic reader: this informed my research when I was teaching in higher education—nobody can know everything, and it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on what fellow researchers in “unrelated” areas are doing. I always throw in a healthy dose of novels as well. Among the novels, some of the most profound were those written for younger readers (each of the books discussed here, by the way, can be found discussed in more detail by selecting the category “books” at the right on this blog). Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief all stand out as particularly profound. They are all, as young adult books tend to be, stories about coming to terms with the adult world. The theme of death weighs heavily in all of them. In none do the children take refuge in religion.

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Among the non-fiction offerings, revisiting my most memorable also reveals trends, I think, in how religion might be usefully applied to an increasingly secular culture. It is no easy task to choose favorites, but I see that I read three books about comic books: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls and Divas, Dames, and Daredevils, and Christopher Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex. The work of Jeffrey Kripal started me on the quest of taking superheroes seriously as sublimated religious figures. Clearly that is the case, as has become increasingly apparent in top-grossing movies. Another set of books (Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, John Angell and Tony Marzluff’s Gifts of the Crow, and Curtis White’s The Science Delusion) highlighted some of the deeply rooted flaws of a materialist reading of the world, whether they intended to or not. Robin Coleman’s Horror Noire, and Susan Hitchcock’s Frankenstein indicated that monsters are among the most eloquent of social critics, even when they have little to say. I would recommend any of these books without hesitation.

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Some of my reading was on specific religious traditions. Maren Cardin’s Oneida, Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology, Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe, and Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death each showcased either a single or several traditions that have emerged in the last century or two that have had a striking impact on America’s religious morphology. Katie Edward’s Admen and Eve is a great example of how businesses have figured out that a religiously hungry society will buy, if marketing pays attention to religion. Among the most powerful books I read were Susan Cain’s Quiet and Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Being human is, after all, the most religious of experiences. Starting with fiction, I’ll end with fiction. The novels for adults I remember most vividly are those with strong female protagonists: Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight, Piper Bayard’s Firelands, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

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This blog offers me a chance to give brief sketches of books that have much more to say than a few words might summarize. The fact that religious ideas and themes might be found in such a range of books underlines once again that we live in a religious milieu, whether we want to admit it or not. Read on!

Super Women

DivasDamesDaredevilsDivas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Gold Age Comics, by Mike Madrid, is a stroll down a memory lane that many of us never previously walked. My imagination is such that I no longer read comic books, but as a child they provided a cheap escape from a reality that didn’t feel so different from the crime-infested world that superheroes inhabited. For young boys reading these stories the absence of women was normal—there were some things of which Mom didn’t approve, and that was because she just didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. Still, Mike Madrid has ably demonstrated a secret knowledge that the 1950s would deem arcane—female characters once held a position nearly equal to that of men in the world of comics. Prior to Comics Code Authority in 1954, the women who helped win the Second World War were portrayed as tough, independent, and in charge (to an extent) of their own destinies. In the conservative backlash of the ‘50s, however, women were diminished, relegated to the home and domestic life. Comic books presented them as secondary to men. That myth has proven pernicious, even now, six decades later.

One of the perks of blogging is having someone you’ve written about contact you. Mike Madrid has been the subject of a previous post for his book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heriones. Madrid’s agent kindly sent me an advance proof of Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and I was once again struck by the historical scope of knowledge that these books present. Academics are—let me correct that—some academics are becoming aware of the fact that popular culture defines reality for many people. We find our troth in those who live on the big screen or on the pulp paper, those who rise above the constant threats of an uncaring world. We’ve seen that business can be its own evil empire, and superheroes, and everyday people, do have it within their power to act. Madrid shows that we were well on our way to equality of the sexes when the haircut and horn-rim crowd of the clean-cut 1950s insisted a return to Stone Age ethics in the treatment of women was appropriate.

In keeping with the general theme of this blog, the book has a chapter on the goddesses who became heroes. We all know Thor, but what of the forgotten Fantomah, Amazona, Marga the Panther Woman, Wildfire, Diana the Huntress, or Maureen Marine? Madrid’s book presents a story from several of the animated heroines of the days before censorship tamed the feminine mystique. More than that, he clearly shows how women—even ordinary women—were once deemed incredible and awe-inspiring. Then the titanium gate of male inferiority complexes and the vaunted “old ways” crashed down, trapping us all in a world fit to be ruled by men alone. I congratulate Madrid for resurrecting so many forgotten figures who never had a chance to become cultural icons. All women are heroes, and I know there is a hero that I miss very much, although even Mike Madrid didn’t mention her in his wonderful book.