Saturday, August 2, 2008

Figuring Out What Universal Means

In the midst of 'rarrrr' over Wowio, I scrambled to check out Shadowgirls and was happily surprised to search and find that it's a web comic.

Shadowgirls reminds me strongly of Hack/Slash (Devil's Due Publishing). I want to talk about that resemblance and the fact that I like these stories / these comics, with their strong, white, female protagonists.

There are times, like I mentioned in Flipsides last night, where it doesn't take much at all to imagine most of the main cast of a given comic or book as being PoC. But there are other times when who the character is and what their experiences are and how they've been formed and how they react to any given stimuli is very informed by what they look like, what their skin colour is, what their life experience is - as white; Hack/Slash and Shadowgirls are such two comics for me.

I've spoken of Cassie before; daughter of a school lunch lady who then becomes a serial killer and then an immortal horror film serial killer. Being so close to being able to conform but internally - mentally and emotionally - being so far away from 'normal' is part of what makes Cassie dynamic to me. Her mother's status as being border-line and having things push her over the edge is another part. And on top of all of that - being percieved as 'poor white trash' - I've found the themes universal. Shadowgirls really made me think about why I think of such themes as universal while at the same time acknowledging the fact I don't think the storylines could work with PoC.

Be warned, I have no idea if I'm going to be able to explain myself properly.

Shadowgirls involves a woman, Charon, who goes missing / is deemed a runaway when she's in 10th grade (that's around 14/15 in the US I think). She's found again some months later, but she's pregnant and apparently suffering through a psychotic episode. Years later the plot kicks it up when her daughter, Beka, is now a teenager.

The plot's set in a small town, Innsmouth. Small town politics and social mores are all over everything. How a small town reacts when a teenager shows up pregnant; how they teach their children to respond to the 'bastard child'; how they treat the unwed mother; how they think about themselves. The undercurrents that bind a small town together from family power plays to highschool dynamics that never mature - it's all there. And I found myself nodding with comprehension as I read.

Now maybe it's a case that PoC in the US (and elsewhere) have to understand white life and white dynamics because it's everywhere and we have to learn to navigate it (from whence comes the code switching). So maybe what I think I'm seeing as universal, isn't and is really only universal in so far that if you're white or have been deemed white in the last fifty years, it's something you could relate to.

Yet I don't think that's it - I hope that's not it. The suffocation of a small town seems similar to the possible suffocation in a small village or any other small self supporting population area. The weight of traditions and social maneuverings seems universal to me. I mean, a girl goes missing and the only one who cares what happens to her when she comes back is her grandmother. To everyone else she's a slut who got what's coming to her...

[ Remind me at some other point in time to discuss/'think out loud' the conflict in the anti-choice argument where a child is both precious and to be protected while simultaneously being a punishment to women and an anchor meant to hold her down. It might explain why they tend not to give a damn about the child once it's born. Because when s/he can breathe on their own, they're now the albatross to be hung around the neck of the mother; who shouldn't get any help because THIS IS WHAT SHE DESERVES!]

Where was I? Oh yeah. Small town shunning. Charon and Becka have managed to carve out an existence for themselves, or rather Charon has carved out an existence for her daughter - even while she seems to teeter on a self destructive edge. And mothers putting one foot in front of the other purely for their children; mothers who refuse to have their mistakes or perceived mistakes reflect on their children? I can understand that. I think that's universal. The fact that there are supernatural influences in everything that's happened so far, with a touch of small town conspiracy (public and possibly also private) only adds to that.

Hack/Slash has Cassie's origins as similar. A small town. The school lunch lady. A disappearing father. A picked on daughter. And then things get weird and bloody.

I suppose Cassie and Charon are similar to me in that Cassie is trying not to let who her mother was define her, even as it so obviously does - but at least she's dealing with it in an active manner. Whereas Charon doesn't care anymore if the town tries to define her but she refuses to let them define her daughter because of who her mother is and what they think she's done and what they think that says about her (Charon) and thus consequently Becka.

But I haven't gotten into the whole 'But why did you bring up race in the first place, Willow?'.

I also read Scar Tissue last night. And it was meh - ok, I guess. Maybe a 4 on a scale of 1-10. Not horrible, but it had enough things that distracted me that it didn't get a higher score. And what distracted me? The fact that there was nothing in the story as it was laid out, that meant the characters had to be white.

If Cassie or Charon were WoC, the undercurrent (in a well done comic at least) of racism and how that played into how people treated them; how that gave people the mental impression that they had some sort of right to treat them as inferior or only worthy of mockery and bullying; that would change the story and change the tone. Cassie and Charon would already be set up as OTHER and any supernatural entanglement in their lives would only make them even more OTHER. And people would still feel they had the right to have treated them the way they did because see - there's the proof of the other.

Scar Tissue on the other hand is a story about a sickly boy who gets a needed heart transplant. But his organ donor is a bad guy; a super powered bad guy. And the powers begin to seep into his body and possibly take over his life.

All the while reading it, I was very aware of the fact that the group of brothers, could have been Black or Chinese or Japanese or Latino. They could have been African immigrants or from the Caribbean or from South East Asia. They could have been second generation or third of East Indian parentage. They could have been NDN/First Nations. Changing the race of the characters wouldn't change the story at all. There would still be a protective older brother, a bit of a wastrel, if well meaning middle brother and the younger brother they're determined to protect. And then there's a girlfriend involved in the storyline and she could have been any number of backgrounds as well and it also wouldn't have changed a thing to the storyline. She'd still want to protect this family of brothers because they're part of her chosen family.

The only reason they're white, is because white is so often the default.

Now I'm well aware that Cassie and Charon (and Becka) are more than likely white because it's considered the default as well. It's possible in Shadowgirls that despite a moment where one individual is picked on because she's half Japanese (I believe) the concept of Charon and Becka as anything but white didn't cross their minds. But there is the fact that changing the race of those characters would change the path of the story.

Now I feel like I'm repeating myself and not saying anything.

But I guess I did make part of my point last night. The fact that it's so easy for me to see the characters in Scar Tissue as characters who could have been PoC says something about how I view the world. And the fact that white is the default for so many creators says something about their world view. Because I don't want to pick on the creators of Scar Tissue. I'm not calling them racist. I'm not even calling them blind. They had a vision and in their vision - everyone looked just like them; except for the token WoC in the superhero team that shows up near the end - y'know, for the traditional diversity.

But there is something going on when a creator's story could be universal - three brothers trying to look out for one another - and they're white, the people they interact with are white, the doctors are white, the people in the street are white, the police and FBI are white.....

Maybe it's not that these stories aren't universal the way Shadowgirls and Hack/Slash are. Maybe it's that the universal themes are muddied by privilege. Maybe the two comics that move me so much, move me because I can't imagine the heroines as being anything else but what they are. And since I can't, I can pay attention to the universal themes. Whereas most of the time I read a comic and I'm just very, painfully aware of a void.


  1. Interesting... I'll have to investigate these.

    I think that suffocating small community thing is universal on a historical level going back forever, not just fifty years. For instance, when you read about the witchcraft panic it seems that often it was used as a vehicle for punishing outcasts of any sort; also that any real or perceived transgression would become part of the 'evidence' damning the person as guilty.

    The pregnancy thing also reminds me of the traditional Irish response to such a situation... the idea that you were either Virtuous or Not; the Magdalene laundries; the very thing you mention about how children in these situations are manipulated according to how people want to treat the mother.

    Actually, if the suffocation of a small town is so universal, I'm now wondering how this plays into the development of cities. I can see the economic reasons why cities grew, but I also wonder about the social side... whether one reason for their growth was that people came not just to prosper but to lose themselves after too much scrutiny from their village neighbours. Also, what part would this have had in defining the modern psyche? Etc...

    Finally, it's interesting to see something being drawn in this style but being part of the Cthulhu mythos. I'm not very aware of what's out there, so this was a surprise...

  2. Dear Avalon's Willow,

    I just wanted to take a moment to compliment and thank you on your insightful write-up on Shadowgirls. Your link appeared in the Word-press blog and I was both surprised and gratified to read such a well thought out piece on the book.

    And you are very correct, especially about the idea that if the McKay's were not white, the way they are shunned by the town takes on different connotations and you kind of lose the point.

    The only part where you make a misstep is by considering that Charon and Becka are white by default. Being a PoC myself, (several of them actually..:) and having grown up in the South Chicago area, its difficult to not have those things influence what I write. But I am not at all surprised that you would feel that way. I've been reading comics since before I could actually read and the only Hispanic heroes were Zorro (Played on tv by white actors) and El Dorado. (Who was zorro with no shirt.)

    But I am rambling a little myself and I want to again thank you for taking the time to include us in your blog (and I love that you have Artesia as your avatar btw as my other comic Starkweather is published by Archaia). It is one of my favorite write-ups and you are welcome to visit and comment on our site at any time!


    David A. Rodriguez

  3. David.R:

    Hiya David A, Rodriguez,

    I have no idea how the trackback worked on your site. I went to peek to see if I could find it, and couldn't.

    But I'm really glad you enjoyed my analysis. You do solid writing. Also I had hoped that white hadn't been the default with Shadowgirls, now I'm not at all disappointed!

    I'm currently using co.mments to keep track of everywhere I drop a line online. But I think even so I'm liable to only comment per arc instead of per day/release. But now I'll look forward to it!

    Oh! And if you do read this - are you looking into other avenues for digital issues/digital release other than Wowio?