On Fighting Fight Scenes
Whenever I tell people that I’m a comics fan—specifically, a superhero comics fan—who doesn’t enjoy fight scenes, there are two general themes that emerge next in the conversation:
Oh, so you’re a fake geek girl/not a ‘real’ comics fan, then!
Short answer to this one? Yep, that’s true! Or at least in the way the people who level these kinds of claims at me (or anyone) tend to mean them. Let’s be clear: women, people of colour, queer folks, trans folks, minoritized subjects of all kinds have always read (and written/drawn/lettered) comics. The narrative that we are a new audience, an addition to a pre-existing group, is false. What is true is that comic book fandoms have often been coded as white and masculine, meaning that those existing outside of those identities were habitually marginalized and erased.
I don’t have personal experience with what it was to grow up in this era. As I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t come to comics until my early twenties. However, I did grow up as a huge fan of professional wrestling, which was in many ways a similar space at that point. Not only was I not explicitly marketed to, but I had to be capable of a certain degree of either internalized misogyny or cognitive dissonance to feel included by a brand that proudly marketed bra and panties matches, referred to women’s breasts as ‘puppies,’ and featured (among other things) a pimp character accompanied by his ‘ho train.’
The degree to which comics as an industry has changed is of course hotly debated, and it’s not a conversation I feel willing or able to enter into at those point. However, these histories are not just relevant when we are assessing current trends; for me, they also influence my approach to past comics. When I started this journey of reading through the Marvel back catalogue, I saw myself as having two potential options, broadly speaking. Option one, I could either try to inhabit or perform as a ‘real’ comics fan—exchanging a feeling of inclusion for the same kind of cognitive dissonance I felt as a 90s and early 2000s wrestling enthusiast. This would necessarily involve according to already established readings patterns, valuing the kinds of stories and characters and scenes that ‘real’ fans have decided are important. Or, option two: I could embrace the fact that this ‘real’ comics fan identity had never belonged to me, and use that to speak from a different place. In my case, it often means admitting ignorance. I did not grow up with these stories or these characters. I don’t have decades of knowledge, or intense feelings of nostalgia, to draw upon.
But going with this approach also means I read comics in the way that feels best to me. For the most part, I am just not a person who enjoys fight scenes. I understand that in the case of superhero stories, there’s a certain degree of character work and narrative progression that happens in these scenes given that the very premise of a superhero is such an intensely embodied one. I don’t skip them, and every once in a while I am pleasantly surprised by an interesting twist or a reversal of an expected formula. I simply tend to find much more joy and interest as a reader outside of these kinds of scenes. Which leads me to the second thing people tend to say when I reveal I don’t care for fight sequences:
But why read superhero comics then?
I mean, because I want to. The less pithy version of this answer, though, is that what ultimately interests me about superheroes is less the super part and more the everyday implications of the extreme circumstances they face. Some of this is undoubtedly because I come from a fannish background, where the focus is often on the small, domestic moments between the big action sequences. But ultimately I think it is selling these characters and these stories short to reduce the superhero body to its capability for violence.
Yes, before anyone starts yelling at me, of course superheroes’ bodies and the fights they take part in are often (maybe even always) metaphors for non-physical conflicts. The body is not, however, just a metaphor, and when we forget that (to paraphrase Judith Butler) bodies matter—in the physical sense, and in moral/ethical/sociopolitical senses—we easily lose sight of the full range of their potential.
What would it look like to imagine a superhero who doesn’t just refuse to kill—like Spider-Man—but who wholesale rejects the use of their body as a weapon? What other kinds of understandings of heroism and the heroic body might open up as a result?
I am not, I am entirely certain, the first to ask these kinds of questions about the genre. But I ask them now, in the context of discussing a part of my reading practice that I often just make jokes about on the show, because it’s important to me to point out that sometimes when someone chooses not to get invested in certain aspects of comics, it is often just as much about making space for something else. When I choose not to expend time and energy trying to force myself to get excited about fight scenes, I leave room for the elements of these stories that I am interested and invested in. This is not, in other words, a reductive process. Superhero comics will always have fight scenes whether I like them and talk about them or not. But by getting excited about and discussing all that exists outside these moments, I also try to do my part as a reader and a consumer to make additive space for a wider range of bodies, identities, and experiences.
My Origin Story
Since I started the show, I’ve been thinking a lot about my journey as a comics reader. Since this is the inaugural post for the blog, my origin story seemed like a great place to start!
My first comics, my 20 year old self would have been extremely quick to tell you, were not comics. They were graphic novels. I encountered them in university, where the instructor of the course put a lot of emphasis on differentiating between the two in terms of both quality and quantity. Specifically, we read From Hell, which was presented as a novel that just happened to take graphic form. Some of this, I know from working on the instructor side of things, was likely because we had not been trained to read images, and so the instructor was encouraging us to lean on what was familiar about how the story was being represented. However, I definitely came away from that experience with the understanding that as a Serious Academic ™, we didn’t read comics. We only read graphic novels, and it was essential to try to pretend the images weren’t really there.
Later, in graduate school, I took a course on graphic memoir. This was the first time I was explicitly taught a lot of specific terms and strategies for reading comics. We talked a lot about Scott McCloud, and about Lynda Barry. Their shared lack of pretension and unapologetic celebration of graphic narrative marked a real shift in my thinking. I still would not have identified myself as a comics reader, but I was certainly starting to lose some of my misguided beliefs that such stories were doomed to be more childish and simplistic than text-only offerings.
My first experience with Comics proper was The Watchmen which…I hated. A colleague I was teaching a course with at the time wanted it on our shared syllabus, but I found the misogyny, homophobia, and racism way too hard to cope with, even on the occasions where it felt like they were trying to critique some of those same forms of oppression. This was decidedly not the best comics introduction. Fortunately, a lot of the fantastic people I was going to school with were really into comics at the time. That’s how I ended up visiting Happy Harbour, a wonderful store that recently shut down, and getting picking up Lumberjanes.
I fucking loved Lumberjanes. I genuinely had no idea graphic narrative could be kind and funny and queer and did I mention queer? It was a revelation. I still felt a bit like an outsider to the larger community at this point. I knew how to read comics but I didn’t really know what to read, especially because at this point I felt like I had no interest in superheroes, and it seemed like that was a lot of what comics were.
Then, one cold day when I could just stroll into movie theatres when I was bored (ah, what’s a world!) I ended up going to see Captain America: Civil War. In hindsight, I’m sort of surprised this film, which is one of my least favourite in the MCU, was enough to get me hooked on Marvel stuff, but maybe the absurdity of Chris Evans pulling a helicopter out of the sky with the power of his biceps was always doomed to be enough. In any case, I started watching the other movies in the franchise, and the natural next step for someone who always wants more more more of whatever they’re enjoying was to check out the source material.
Okay. So. I’m getting into Marvel comics! That should be easy, right? At first it was. One of the first things I had ever heard about superhero stuff was that the Fraction/Aja run of Hawkeye was great. So I read that, and it was everything that was promised and more. Like, I loved it to the extent that there is now a custom-made doll of that Hawkeye on my dresser right at this moment. And hey, he had a cool ex-wife, so maybe I should check out the run of comics specifically devoted to her!
That started well! Look at her ‘ask me about my feminist agenda’ shirt! Oh wait..it got canceled so fast. Okay, no problem, that’s probably pretty rare. Ooh, look, a fabulous-looking team full of women called A-Force! …oh. Shit. Alright then, I’ve heard of something called the Ultimates! Except there were a lot of titles in the store with variations on that title, and somehow none of them seemed to be the one people were talking about. I had some successes in there—I loved Ms. Marvel so much I immediately started teaching it in my first year classes, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur was also pretty fantastic. Ultimately, though, trying to figure out what I was supposed to read in what order, while also trying to keep track of what had been cancelled and whether it was still worth reading them was just exhausting. For a while, I stopped bothering to read them at all.
Before you ask, by the way, I am aware that there are such things as indie comics! And I’ve dipped my toe in those waters a few times, and I really want to engage with more of them. (Feel free to use the comments section to rec me your faves!) However, I also really didn’t like feeling like I had been sort of pushed out by Marvel. I wanted to know the backstories of some of my favourite characters. So I decided to start exactly there: with character.
It might not be the smartest way to go. I know characters jump around and team up and make appearances in each other’s issues and all that. But my roots are in fandom, which is so heavily driven by character, and I liked the idea of tracking the evolution of a single character throughout the years. And thus, this podcast was born!
So that was my comics education. It’s been a winding, contradictory, frustrating, wonderful experience. And it’s not even close to over yet. I’m excited to keep going on this journey with you.
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