Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Good Daughter

I've been complaining for quite some time about the female characters at DC who, because of certain aspects of their concept, send very uncomfortable anti-feminist messages and reinforce unfortunate stereotypes.

I've read about the younger, female versions of established male heroes.

I've read about a beautiful talented young woman who has strength and confidence but is so uncomfortable with leadership and direction that she turns from a warm caring person to a confrontational bitch when in a leadership position. She also reinforces the stereotype of the beautiful woman who leaves a positive, loving relationship to knock boots with a total sleeze.

I've read about a woman who became the only character in a certain franchise that I couldn't stand. The daughter of two powered parents, and the twin of a powered brother, she inherits powers from the father (as does her brother). In order to be a hero, she has to actively reject her birth mother and everything the woman stood for and embrace her father. She loses that inheritance in order to protect her male relatives, and starts to develop her mother's powers. These are immediately cast aside for a return of her paternally inherited powers, which can only happen through the help of her boyfriend! (This was still a nasty message even before it was retconned into a worse one) From there, she further descends into a symbolic cautionary tale.

I've read about the most skilled martial artist in the world, a 16 year old Asian girl. She is trained from an early age and built into a killing machine by a man who also trains her to complete silence. He is, at least implied to be, her father, and still plays a part in her life. She overturns this man's influence in favor of another father figure, and takes on the mantle of a woman -- who had taken on the mantle of that second father figure. Her mother.. Well, let's face it, this character's situation is a whole post in itself. I'm still waiting on my own copy, but it's got me more incensed than the above character (and I like this one!)

Then we have the female characters who started out with a bright happy future, only to have sexual trauma retroactively injected into their backstory for reasons I'm not quite sure of, but which could be: a) dramatic shorthand for female character strength, b) complete lack of respect for the issue, c) stupid writers, and d) "'Cause we kin't do that to a Guy!" Yeah, real enlightened.

And of course, there's the beautiful situation wherein Wonder Woman is forced to sacrifice everything she hopes for and believes in order to save Superman. She snapped the neck of a telepath who was (at that moment!) controlling Clark's mind. Sure, it wasn't as necessary as Superman's killing the 3 Kryptonian criminals who's power he had already permanently removed with gold kryptonite and who were posing absolutely no threat at the time, but you know, given that she was in a situation where she three options (Kill Max, Kill Clark, or get killed herself) I'd say we can give her a break. No, she gets villified. By the same guy (Holy Double Standard, Batman!) who was so accepting of Clark's confesson about the 3 Kryptonian criminals.

But that's all okay now. All of the above crap can be excused, because I have Manhunter.

(Spoilers for Manhunter #19, which I hope that you have read. If you haven't and have no intention of reading it, I hope this changes your mind.)

Keep Going

Yes, Manhunter, the most progressive female comic book character on the market.

Yes, Manhunter. Kate Spencer.

Yes, the same Kate Spencer who left her primary weapon out so her young son could find it and get hospitalized.

The remorseless killer who brutally slaughtered Copperhead.

Who blackmailed a man in the Witness Protection Program to fix her superhero equipment.

Who stole that superhero equipment from a Federal Evidence locker.

Who smokes in federal buildings.

Despite being a federal prosecutor.

Who sent a summons to the Justice League Headquarters.

Yes, that Manhunter.

Who'd you think I meant? One of the guys?

Kate's concept is awesome. She is the granddaughter of the JSA Founder, the Atom. It's possible (but not clear in any of the issues I own) that she inherited superstrength from him by way of her father, Walter Pratt. Kate's a legacy hero, but not as the Atom. She took a completely different legacy, the Manunter. She took it by way of stealing equipment from a federal evidence locker. A locker she had access to because of her career, a federal prosecuter which was her personal choice. Kate's power comes not form her paternal legacy, but from the suit and accompanying weapons that she acquired herself. Right there, she's past a conceptual problem that plagues female legacy characters.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read the whole series (I have 7-12 and 16-17 on order right now) but I picked up 18 because of Todd Rice. I couldn't help but be struck by the role reversal inherent in the plot. Her ex-husband Peter is kidnapped, tied up and tortured (in a similar position, I believe, to Black Canary in the Longbow Hunters). He's being tormented by a predatory female villain. Kate is on the way to rescue him.

Right there I was thinking to myself, Andreyko is doing this on purpose. He's a subversive. There's role-reversal all over the place in this issue.

Kate's father, Walter Pratt, kidnaps her son Ramsey and her ex-husband Peter in the hope of getting a bone marrow transfusion. Kate's son is not a match, forcing him to go after Kate directly. This is good overturn of the cultural tradition that a male grandchild is worth more to the family than the daughter who bore the grandchild.

Usually, a gay couple in the supporting cast will be female (Maggie Sawyer and Toby, Lee and Leigh, a bunch of Amazons in Perez's run but two in particular who's names escape me). There are exceptions (Pied Piper doesn't count because he was almost always seen single, but there was Mikaal and Tony in Starman -- another comic book that liked to turn convention on its ear -- but Tony was a staunch background character with little personality other than he loved Mikaal) but generally lesbians are more prolific. Here it's a male couple, both of whom have well-developed personalities -- Todd's an established character brought in for Damon, and Damon is a resident supporting cast member tied to Kate since the first issue. They kiss in this issue, and a female secretary in the background watches with a dreamy expression. She's fantasizing.

There's other objectification of men by women in this book, mainly by Phobia, the female villain. She's aroused by Peter's fear, and goes out of her way to lay her hands all over Walter's body when he's waiting for surgery.

Like a traditional story centered on a female hero or any hero who is less than morally spotless, there is a pure-hearted huntsmen/white knight to help our hero fight her evil stepmother father. She (Cameron Chase) spent issue 18 seeking a magical technological artifact from one of Kate's allies. This ally commonly provides Kate with such weapons. Ladies and Gentlemen, the part of the Lady of the Lake in Manhunter will be played by Dylan Battles. (Yeah, that one seems like a reach, but he actually comes out ofa pool of water to give Cameron the teleportation device in issue 19 and I, with all of my reading where they drive home the point of the Goddess as Armorer in old Celtic Legends can't get past that -- I think even subconciously Andreyko is flipping stereotypes. Which, when you realize that even when they do try to flip stereotypes they usually subconciously reinforce them, is pretty damned impressive)

Any doubts I had that this stuff is on purpose were dispelled by the name of the villain's hideout -- "the old Marston place." It's a really unlikely coincidence to play with gender stereotypes in a comic book and then drop the name of Wonder Woman's creator.

And the next issue, we get to see her fight her Dad.

You see, Walt is a total bastard. He killed her mother. He's put her son and ex-husband in serious danger. He's pushing her around and insulting her.

Now, I suppose she's going to be a purehearted heroine here. She's going to be merciful and help save his life and forgive him his wrongs even as he's incarcerated for the rest of his natural life, right? That's what any child in the father emnity stories does. She redeems the family through love. That's how you keep a woman sympathetic, right?

Wrong. She gets to go all the way here. He doesn't get to be the redeemed father figure. He gets stomped like an evil mother/stepmother -- and nobody regrets his death (especially the reader).

Even better, he gets stomped personally by her. She not only denies him his lifesaving medical treatment (for which her bone marrow, and the villainous Dr Moon -- the male villain Kate killed last issue -- are necessary), she fights him to the death. And she mouths off to him during the fight. That's the fun part.

And yes, there is intervention when the fight turns against Kate. By Cameron, who delivers the teleportation device that Kate uses to fry her father.

After this, we find out that the battle caused a miscarriage. Peter Hernandez feels this was a weak story point -- "The only problem with the conclusion was with the final scene and the miscarriage. Only because it was like Walt getting the last laugh as he hurts Kate one final time...and hasn’t he already hurt her enough?"

I think it's just more of the death imagery that surrounds Kate. For starters, she smokes. Smoking is beyond simply representing someone's attitude towards society. It's beyond emphasizing crankiness (effectively done with her contrast to the optimistc, fair-haired Damon). Every message we get in our society drives home the point that cigarettes are connected to cancer and slow lingering death. Kate, most often shown with a cigarette, is toking death.

She is a dark haired woman in red. Now, I know a few of you are going "Hey, that's sex, isn't it?" Maybe with someone else, but Kate's red costume also includes really sharp clawed gauntlets and white eye-lenses. This is blood we're looking at. To me in particular this calls to mind menstration and the associated dark goddesses (Morrigan, Kali, Hecate -- You know, the death goddesses) but I may still be thinking of Shining Knight.

In her first story arc, she kills Copperhead. Copperhead's a snake villain. Snakes are heavily symbolic of rebirth and eternal life.

Her costume is a suit of armor two men have died in. She has the gauntlets that belonged to Azrael, the replacement Batman who is famous for going too far and killing people. Her primary weapon, as Chris testifies, is a "staff belonging to Deathstroke the Frigg'n Terminator"

I've heard superheroes in DC referred to as "the gods" occasionally and compared to the Greek Pantheon a few times. If this is the case, Kate's one of the dark goddesses. She's very much about endings. She's a character that takes us into the "after the battle" aspect of superheroics. She takes the villain to trial and works to get him punished for his crimes. If Justice isn't served at the bench, she takes it on herself to play executioner and end things once and for all.

Her weak spot is being a mother (she fails as a parent in the same way Golden Age male superheroes did, by her absence and dedication to justice), possibly because Motherhood is full of beginnings and middles. That's not her realm. Compassion isn't where Kate's comfortable, because compassion isn't direct and blunt like she is. Compassion prolongs things.

Does this make her unlikeable? Perhaps.

Does this make her interesting and complex? Definitely.

Does she fill a niche that is vacant in the DCU? You bet she does, on more than one level.

I've yet to see a negative review about Manhunter. I've heard several bloggers, like Scipio and Heidi recommend it (but not post on it). When I do see reviews, they tend towards the postive.

I just feel bad it took me so long to notice this book.


  1. great post. i haven't looked into manhunter at all and now i definitely am. :)

  2. As usual, another great post. I reviewed Manhunter #1 for CHUD:Thor's Comic Column and instantly fell in love with it. My favorite scene in the book so far is in the first issue, she learns the hard way that jumping across rooftops is NOT a natural ability for most. I love experiencing a character go through a learning curve.

  3. Truly excellent post, and a wonderful subject. This Manhunter series is one of the best books DC has on the stands right now, and you're absolutely correct, Andreyko is very purposefully subverting all kinds of genre expectations in the book.

  4. Fascinating theories on the symbolism! Doesn't matter whether the author put them in their intentionally or not, by the way; as long as they are there, their fair game for exegesis.

  5. I reviewed the trade a while back, and while I was less enthusiastic than you and Dorian, I'm still interested enough to want to read more and get up to speed.

    While I'm at it, I strongly recommend that you hunt up the back issues of the Chase series- I think you might like them.

  6. Hey, one thing. What do you make of the obvious phallic imagery in the Manhunter solicit ad that you posted up there?

  7. Devon -- Yeah, her messups are half the fun. The beauty of the first year is she can be as stupid as the writer needs to entertain us, and you empathize with that.

    Dorian and Scipio -- this is your shared fault, you know. Your blogs clued me in on this series.

    Johnny -- I read Chase when it came out. Loved it. My sister's got all the issues, though. I pick them up to reread when I've got a few bucks lying. If you haven't read Issue 14 yet, as a Chase fan it will make you happy.

    Adam -- Phallic symbols indicate agression. It's a very aggressive organ. Kate's cigarette, gun, placement of the gun and stance all indicate her aggressive nature. The cigarette, as a taboo in society, shows her rejecting societal norms. A woman is not physically equipped with the organ that normally represents agression. Instead she gets receptive organ, and some people use this physical difference to argue that an aggressive female is unnatural. If she were aggressive, she'd have a phallus. This, despite years and years of work, is still a societal norm. An aggressive woman is often said to "have a set." Kate's symbolically showing that a woman can be aggressive by the positioning of her equipment. Aggression is not just a masculine trait. The physical augmentation is completely unnecessary. All it takes is attitude and the willingness to collect what you want.

  8. Hm. I get your point, but I'm not convinced about the 'very aggressive organ' thing. I'd settle for 'an organ traditionally used symbolically in an aggressive way'. or something less clumsy with the same meaning.

  9. adam -- It always seemed pretty aggressive to me.

    How about this -- Phallic symbols are like swords and staves and guns. They jut out. That's aggressive.

  10. I'm not convinced, but let's agree to disagree on that one. I don't want to start a fight just when I've discovered your great blog.

  11. That's such a beautiful way to end an argument.