Archive for April, 2011

The Never-Before-Seen Conclusion! (Catch up with parts One, Two, and Three – They have video!)

Popular culture is a fantastic place to explore ideas and assumptions about gender, and because I’m a firm believer that questions are the content, before I close, I want to reference those I posited at the beginning of this presentation, now that we have some context.

If male characters define the archetypes of Spy and Detective, what does it look like when women fill those roles? And are these female characters simply superimposed on to their male source material?

Greg Rucka has said that while gender is an element of character, gender is not character itself – and that while he treats his female characters the same way he treats his male ones there is a difference in how he writes them.

He asserts that if he wrote a female character the same way he wrote a male one, then she wouldn’t be female, she’d be a guy who looks like a girl with a girl’s name.

And a female character is not, in his words, “a guy with tits.”

The next was: is the idea that they are possibly female versions of male characters a gimmick? Or does the fact that they are unconventional bodies in traditional positions mean that they are capable of challenging assumptions about gender? And does that make them feminist?

What about a “female Mike Hammer”? Sure sounds like a gimmick.

And yet, as Collins has said, one of the interesting aspects of writing Ms. Tree is that all he had to do was let her do things men routinely did in this kind of story – meaning a pulpy detective tale – and a special resonance would be created.”

Which does reinforce the idea that unconventional bodies in traditional roles are capable of challenging assumptions about gender, simply by being there.

But because sex and subterfuge are inseparable from the spy fiction and detective genres, even when female agents use the same fighting skills and weapons as the opposite sex, the addition of their sexual appeal makes them deadlier than the male.

For example, Modesty has a trademark technique called “The Nailer” – where she walks into a room full of criminals topless, effectively stunning them, while Willie sneaks round from behind to take them down.

Ms. Tree, in a nod to the cover of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury – as well as to Modesty, distracts a villain in nearly the same way.

And it worked so well the first time that she did it again.

Tara, in a more subtle fashion, manipulates a border crossing in potentially hostile territory by pretending to accidently hand over a nude photo of herself with her papers.

So we can assume, at least with these 3 character examples, that women in unexpected roles are capable of BOTH subverting and reinforcing assumptions about gender.

Finally, why a female – and is she feminist?

Modesty Blaise, who was often, and erroneously compared to James Bond, was created by O’Donnell to counter the preponderance of “big,” . . . “male,” . . . “superheroes.” And has himself has said, she is the antithesis of Bond.

A female character with all the skill and excitement of a “Bond”- type, but that has little to do with him, is not modeled on him, and is the protagonist of a series that ran successfully for over 40 years, is certainly feminist indeed.

Of Ms. Tree, Max Allan Collins has said that she was, and is, a feminist in the sense that she is a strong woman who makes her own decisions.

He didn’t want to do the typical role reversal story in which the female hero is depicted as tougher, smarter, and more athletic than the men around her – feeling that an approach of that nature was inherently sexist. And he wanted equality for his female protagonist.

Of course, one Ms. Trina Robbins recognized Michael as a feminist early on. In a missive to Beatty and Collins’ letter page, she writes, “Any woman as intelligent, tough, and independent as Michael is certainly a feminist.”

Tara, is a highly trained, intelligent, and skilled agent. She’s also realistically depicted as having a complex emotional life. She’s depicted as physically beautiful – as most female heroes are – but Rucka has noted that “she’s never more attractive than when she’s being smart, when she’s doing her job, and doing it well.”

It’s a welcome rarity in spy fiction for a woman’s actions and intelligence to be emphasized over her appearance.

Queen and Country is more than a simple role reversal story, a woman in a man’s place. As Rucka has said, one of the reasons he loves writing female characters is that “situations and stories that we have seen thousands of times before, become entirely different if you recast your protagonist as female, because dynamics change.”

So while these women ARE rooted in, based on, or frequently referenced in relation to male characters, they are not merely female imitations.

They are anti-Bonds and female dicks.

Tara Chace: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

If you haven’t read Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, yet, I suggest hook yourself up with one of the most unique spy comics you’ll encounter.

There are 8 volumes of this espionage series – illustrated by different artists.

As well as 3 novels.

The protagonist, is Tara Felicity Chace, named so after Rucka’s high school best friend, in honor of discovering a love of gritty spy fiction series together.

One of those was, The Sandbaggers – a British Cold-War era drama broadcast in the late 1970s. It was created by, Ian Mackintosh, a former lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy who had an Intelligence background.

“Sandbaggers” is a nickname for special operatives in the secret intelligence service – an organization also known as “SIS” or MI6.

Essentially, they are the equivalent of the CIA.

The people in Special Operations are absolutely nothing like James Bond, and in fact, Bond is mentioned throughout the series to reinforce how much of a fantasy 007’s world of espionage is compared to the real thing.

The real thing is filled with tedium, cramped offices, contention between the government and SIS, a “Special Relationship” with the CIA – one that consists of exchanging mutually beneficial, if seedy, favors.

Politically and personally dangerous missions are the rarity. Most of the Sandbaggers time is spent shuffling paper from In Tray to Out Tray. They are instruments of government, and nothing more.

What impressed Rucka about the show was that it emphasized the politics – and political tension – between government and espionage – something that was, and for the most part remains, lacking from Bond.

Rucka says what made The Sandbaggers sing for him was that the stories were always about individuals.

And that you saw the toll this work takes on people’s lives set against the context of the mission, and the even larger context of the political situation, and how those influence one another.

He found dramatic power in the idea that these people were entirely expendable – and that it was the political level that made it the most human story because it was the political level that said people don’t matter.

That dramatic potential, combined with character-driven stories that explore the moral complexity of global politics make Queen & Country a spiritual sequel to The Sandbaggers.

Tara is a special operations officer for the Secret Intelligence Service. Here nicknamed Minders rather than Sandbaggers.

Like its inspiration, Queen and Country is set in the real world, and takes an honest look at modern espionage – from sending agents on politically sensitive, and often dubious, tasks such as government sanctioned assassination – to the subsequent, . . necessary . . .paperwork.

Tara’s is a thankless job – one marked, as her boss, says, by “months of tedium, interrupted by bursts of bowel-freeing panic.”

Like James Bond, particularly Daniel Craig’s most recent incarnation, Tara is, as 007’s superior, M, describes him, “a blunt object.”

But she’s also smart, . . . very smart, and skilled. And, as Rucka has noted, Tara feels fear, an emotion that humanizes her, without making her vulnerable, and further grounds the series in reality.

Regardless, she’s also incredibly damaged – understandable considering one day she’s asked by her government to assassinate someone, and the next, handed over to a foreign government by her own people to appease the very act she had been sent by them to do.

She goes to work knowing she’s good at her job, better than most, and is still entirely expendable.

She does it for Queen & Country.

And as Gail Simone said, I think she’s ruined me for other spies.

Video of Part Three and Q&A – I had to skip the conclusion as the previous panel ran long, cutting into our set-up time, and I had to leave time for Q&A (which gets cut off at the very end). I’ll include my conclusion in a bonus Part Four.

Parts One and Two.

Each of the three characters I talked about have been described in terms of male icons of popular culture. Modesty Blaise and Tara Chace have both been called a “female James Bond.” And Ms. Tree was conceived as the “female Mike Hammer.”

Now, Bond and Hammer have clearly become cultural embodiments of specific archetypes – the British spy and the American hardboiled detective, respectively.

But rarely does one hear of male characters being described in terms of iconic female characters. Additionally, to say that someone is a “female spy” or a “woman detective” continues to reinforce the idea that male identities are the default position.

Questions I invited the audience to consider during the presentation were:

• If male characters define these archetypes, what does it look like when women fill those roles?

• Are these female characters simply superimposed on to their male source material?

• And is the idea that they are possibly female versions of male characters narrative novelty? A mere gimmick?

• Or does the fact that they are unconventional bodies in traditional positions mean that they are capable of challenging assumptions about gender? And does that alone make them feminist?

After meeting these three characters, we were able to revisit these questions with a bit more context – with the intention of further exploring them together during the Q&A.

Modesty Blaise, one of my favorite heroes in popular culture, is a survivor, a force of nature, an ex-crime boss, and a loyal friend.

She was born out of glamour girl strips and British espionage stories—but Modesty is neither a nearly-naked ditz, nor, as she has often been called, a “female Bond.”

She is one of the great literary characters of the 20th Century.

Peter O’Donnell, who passed away just last year, created the character and was her only writer. Prior to her debut in 1963, he wrote other newspaper strips, as well as romantic serials for women’s magazines.

Modesty was drawn by the talented, Jim Holdaway—until his untimely death.

Even though other capable artists took over – it was his work that was the most exquisite.

Modesty was inspired by a encounter O’Donnell had with a young female refugee while he was stationed in Persia during World War II in which his unit shared rations with her.

His fictional character, was also a refuge, an orphan from Hungary who traveled alone until she met a Jewish man in his fifties at a displaced persons camp.

He became her teacher and traveling companion.

Upon his death, Modesty made her way to Tangiers, where she ran a roulette table at a casino, before becoming the leader of a crime syndicate called the Network – at age 19.

But Modesty had her own sense of morality, and made sure The Network never dealt in vice. Those who disobeyed this rule through the sale of drugs, women, or children were delivered to the authorities or their graves.

A man named Willie Garvin was Modesty’s right arm in The Network, and is her closest companion. She is his “Princess.”

The pair have been called “criminals with hearts of gold,” a description which is only partly true, as when we first meet them, Modesty and Willie are retired from crime.

More accurately, they’ve always walked a fine line between criminality and heroism—always leaning towards the moral side, if not necessarily the legal one.

They occasionally do favors for a dear friend in the British Secret Service.

But Modesty is no one’s agent, and where she goes Willie follows.

Over the years Modesty branched out into other media. A terrible, terrible movie was released in 1966. In fact, we took a few minutes so everyone coulds get an idea of just how very awful it is.

Peter O’Donnell once said of the film, “It makes my nose bleed to think of it.”

O’Donnell, was able to turn his original screenplay for the movie into the first of a series of 11 novels. As well as two collections of short stories detailing Modesty and Willie’s exploits and adventures – including their eventual demise.

Since the original Modesty Blaise fiasco, several prominent creators of popular culture, including Neil Gaiman, Luc Besson, and Quentin Tarantino, have expressed interest in making an adaptation that would remain truer to its source.

Tarantino was tangentially involved in a B-movie made over 18 days in Bucharest called, My Name is Modesty. Which is actually pretty good.

It features an original story, which O’Donnell was consulted on, and an authentic Modesty – one who is compassionate, resolved, resourceful – and completely full of whoop-ass.

Max Allan Collins notes that the character, Ms. Tree, which he created with Terry Beatty, was partly inspired by Modesty. They were intrigued by the idea of “An American Modesty Blaise” for their detective series, who would be to private eyes what Modesty is to spies.

Their “female Mike Hammer” debuted in 1981 – and thus predated the wave of women PI’s in literature in the 1980s – a fact that gets often gets overlooked, mostly due to the medium of the comic book.

As hard-boiled as they come, Ms. Michael Tree (her father wanted a son) first appeared in a 6-part serialized graphic novel called “I, For an Eye” in Eclipse Magazine, and most recently in the pulp paperback novel, Deadly Beloved.

A true dame of modern noir, the tough talking Ms. Tree was conceived out of Collins’ and Beatty’s love of EC Comics, Dick Tracy, Dragnet, the lone wolf tough guys of Hammett and Chandler . . .

. . . And especially Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

Ms. Tree, left the police force her father had worked for, to ultimately end up following in her husband’s stead.

First, as his begrudging secretary, and later, as the head of Tree Investigations.

For the physical look of Ms. Tree, they referenced the obscure ‘Mike Hammer’ comic strip from the early 1950s and were inspired by the way Ed Robbins had drawn Velda – Hammer’s Amazonian secretary and eventual lover, who, by the way, was a licensed PI herself. But they’ve noted that even without cartoonist Robbins to light the way, Spillane’s description of Velda had been fairly exact:

To put it even more bluntly, Velda is a brick house.

As Collins and Beatty were fans of Blaise, they additionally referenced Holdaway, and borrowed from Modesty, what Beatty calls that “Velda/Bettie Page/Tura Satana look” noting that “a wasp-waisted, big breasted, long-legged super-heroine figure made no sense in Ms. Tree’s ink and paper universe — especially after her pregnancy!”

They wanted her attractive but strong, feminine, but not girly.

Collins, has often explained the central notion of the Ms. Tree series was a play on the cliché of the tough guy private eye, his loyal secretary, and their unrequited love.

Here, this was rooted specifically in Hammer and Velda – a couple that Spillane had eventually intended to have marry.

In Ms. Tree the comic they do, only for the P.I. to be murdered on their wedding night, leaving the secretary to take over the detective agency and step into her late husband’s shoulder holster.

The private eye’s murder was the former secretary’s first case.

But Ms. Tree became much more than a playful, or even, progressive, gender reversal in a noirish tale of loss and revenge, and her story moved far beyond the confines of a reductive “you-touched-my-stuff” narrative.

Don’t get me wrong – She IS vengeful – and, as Beatty has said – “Female PI’s hadn’t been nearly as gun happy or disturbed as their male counterparts until Ms. Tree came along.”

But, while adhering to tropes of the hard-boiled detective genre, Collins and Beatty also created a complicated character – tough, but tender, feminine but not girly, gun-happy, but feminist.

As argued in Hard-Boiled and High-Heeled this is partially because, “The very concept of the ‘female dick’ asks us to reimagine sex . . . bodies . . . and gender.”

But also because while dealing with the stereotypes of pulpy crime comics, Collins and Beatty wanted to “build some flesh and blood onto them.” So that, for example, Ms. Tree herself was a distinctive tough detective, “not just another refried Philip Marlowe.”

For over 15 consecutive years, and through various publishers, Ms. Tree was the heroine of the longest running detective comic book of all time. She lived . . . loved . . . and lost, as hard-boiled protagonists do, but she was also afforded a complexity denied most female characters in comic books.

Her first case as a P.I. may have been to track down her husband’s killer, but Ms. Tree was never reduced to a widow (or, for that matter, to a cop’s daughter). She was also independent, a killer, a sister, a step-mother, and a dangerous enemy.

She was the respected leader of her own, successful business, and later, a mother, who hunted down baddies while 8 months pregnant . . .

. . . and was even lovingly and beautifully depicted breast-feeding her newborn—a rarity in comics for sure.

As per her creators’ intention, she is not a superhero, and doesn’t know martial arts, but she is smart, resolved, lethal, and a bad-ass babe. She has a gun, and she knows how to use it – happily.

See Part One.

Part Three is next!

Here are slides and video from my recent Wondercon presentation with Trina Robbins for the Comics Art Conference. The video is missing the very beginning of our opening, but I’ve included text below.

Comics Arts Conference Wondercon 2011

If one imagines a Spy, someone that embodies spydom, espionage, and intrigue – someone who is a covert agent, it’s quite likely that James Bond, in any of his incarnations, should most definitely spring immediately to mind.

But maybe you also picture, Harry Palmer or Jason Bourne.

Now, if you imagine a PI, it might just be an archetype you imagine . . .

. . . or it could be a specific character: Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, maybe Columbo, Kojak, or Mike Hammer.

For those of you who know Trina and myself – you know we want to represent when it comes to the female of the species – and therefore, we wanted to share with you but a few of our favorite women of spy-fi and detective comics.

For those of you who don’t know us – Ms. Trina Robbins is an award-winning herstorian and expert on the subject of early 20th century women cartoonists. She produced the first all-woman comic book, It Ain’t Me, Babe, in 1970, and was a co-founder of the Wimmen’s Comix Collective. And she is a writer whose subjects have ranged from Wonder Woman and the Powerpuff Girls to her own teenage superheroine, GoGirl! – from women cartoonists and superheroines to women who kill.

As for me, I’m a writer, blogger, author, feminist, and also a pop culture herstorian. I’m a regular contributor to Bitch magazine, a Charter Associate of the Whedon Studies Association, as well as the Programming Director for GeekGirlCon. My first book – Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology – is both a history of, and a thematic look at, female super and action heroes and was awarded on place on the 2011 Amelia Bloomer Project List.

Because someone will inevitably say – “You didn’t talk about my favorite character” – we wanted to acknowledge upfront that there are many characters we could have talked about in our presentation, both well-known and obscure . . .

. . . but since we only had an hour we decided to each pick three of our favorites to share.

We hoped we introduced you to something thrilling in the herstory of spy-fi sheroes and female dicks in comics.

After I introduced the presentation, Trina started in the 1940s with her talk, Fighting Women’s Fashions: Marla, Rio, and Honey – and I joined her in the 1960s, with my Anti-Bonds and the Female Dick: Subverting, and Reinforcing, Gender Expectations in Spy-Fiction and Detective Genres. We then had time for a very brief Q&A and were joined by the wonderful artist, Cynthia Martin — who is doing work on Moonstone’s Honey West comic book.

Part Two – Coming Up!