Comics follow-up: summer of superheroes (and Nordic kid adventurers)

Back in late April/early May, partly with the help of Free Comic Book Day, I dipped into several new (or at least recent) franchises, discovering some awesome titles such as America, Ms. Marvel, and the Hildafolk comics by Luke Pearson.  I spoke a little about the awesomeness of watching a lesbian Latina superhero punch Hitler, and the first Muslim American teen superhero fighting stereotypes and totally-not-bird-men-supervillains in not-quite-New York (Jersey City, NJ), and a stylish little girl adventuring across a “Nordic mythscape.”

Since then, I’ve delved deeper into the origins of America Chavez and Kamala Khan, and all the pre-FCBD adventures of Hilda, and have discovered several more awesome themes across this slice of the comicsphere.

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Note:  SPOILERS ahead for all of the comics discussed.

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LGBT representation

Ok, so I already mentioned LGBT themes in my last comics post, but America wasn’t actually the first or only LGBT character in her previous comics.  The 15-issue Young Avengers series, in which America first came out as gay, features a nearly-all-LGBT cast — from the bisexual Prodigy, Marvel Boy, and maybe Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop, to the couple at the center of the story, Hulkling and Wiccan, who actually save the multiverse with the power of their True Love.

Young Avengers 2
See what she did there?

The more recent issues of Ms. Marvel also feature a lesbian character — Zoe Zimmer, who started out as a concern troll/bully, but turned a complete 180 after an almost apocalypse made her reconsider her priorities and admit some things to herself she’d been trying to ignore.  Her secret crush on Kamala’s best friend, Nakia, is a big plot point in the latest collection, Damage Per Second, in which a particularly nasty computer virus threatens to publish her not-quite-deleted love letters to the whole school if Ms. Marvel doesn’t do its evil bidding.

Oh, and ok, I know I already had a whole post on the awesomeness of Lumberjanes, but I just have to share this adorable Mal/Molly moment from the latest issue:

Lumberjanes
Awwww

Family is not a hindrance

In one of their page-bottom notes in Strong Female Protagonist Vol. 1, authors Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag comment on the tendency for writers to make their superhero protagonists orphans so that family life doesn’t get in the way of their superheroing duties (and also to give their heroes a properly tragic backstory).  This is certainly the case for America, whose mothers sacrificed themselves to save the multiverse when she was six years old.  Most of the members of the Young Avengers team are also parentally-unencumbered, and in fact, the central plot of the series has them trying to fight/escape the possessed ghosts of their parents led by one soul-eating monster simply called the Mother.

Like Mulligan and Ostertag, the writers of Ms. Marvel subvert this no-family trend, making family a central component of Kamala’s life.  She may be a superhero tasked with saving Jersey City from evil gerrymandering and “downtown revitalization” plots and well-meaning-but-totally-unethical Minority Report-style precrime-fighting endeavors, but she still has to make time for important family functions.

Ms Marvel 2
And Iron Man’s like, Of course you should hang out with your family, kid! That’s your real job!

The Hilda comics also subvert the trope of parents being oblivious to and uninvolved in their kids’ magical adventures (well, ok, that’s partly because Hilda and her mom live in a world where magic is just a part of life, like the constantly migrating bear heads that float past their house…they’re called woffs).  Hilda’s mom knows exactly what’s going on every time Hilda claims to just be going out for some fresh air or to return a library book.  Hilda’s mom wants in.

Hilda 2

Social Media and other 21st century world-building

So, as I mentioned in my last comics post, characters like Kamala and America appeal to a modern audience by using modern vocab and technology.  Young Avengers was billed as a comic for the Tumblr generation.  Three months of superheroing are summarized in a page of Twitstagram posts.  The members of America’s first teen superhero team in Vengeance text each other mid-battle and mid-night-clubbing.  Ms. Marvel de-stresses by writing Avengers fanfic and playing an online RPG game, and fights that nasty virus I mentioned earlier by joining forces with her fellow players (in an admittedly not-advisable real-life midnight meet-up in an empty convenience store).

Ms Marvel 3

Only the Hilda comics resist this trend by focusing on a more timeless fairytale setting.  Even in the big city of Trolberg, TVs are the most advanced technology they have, and Hilda would much rather spend her time outside, playing with salt lions by the sea and flying over the hills on giant thunderbirds.  Honestly, I like both styles, the modern and the timeless; they’re both relatable in their own way.  I like watching Kid Loki’s online banter with Marvel Boy and Hawkeye about the use of the word “smooch,” and watching Kamala (a.k.a. SlothBaby) fight giant boss battles in World of Battlecraft, but I also like stepping back into that “Nordic mythscape” with its nature-based adventures — hills full of rock trolls and mountain giants (like, giants that are also mountains).

Overall

One of the most fun parts of exploring the America and Ms. Marvel ‘verses has been meeting characters from other series, and having my interest in their stories piqued. Characters like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Miles Morales!Spiderman, and the members of A-Force.  I want to know more about Wakanda and what’s been going on with the Dora Milaje (I think it’s a super team led by King T’challa? Please feel free to make fun of my lack of knowledge, if you’re a Black Panther fan).  I want to see how Civil War II went down in the other parts of the Marvel ‘verse.

And of course I’m totally waiting for the next Hilda collection, to see how the changeling story continues, with Hilda as a newbie troll and the troll baby stuck in Hilda’s home.

I like being a newbie comics nerd.  I like going back to my local comics shop (and library.  My local library system has the best comics collection, and if they don’t have something? Inter-library loan FTW!) every month for the latest issues, and discovering new characters to follow.

Fellow comics nerds, sound out!  Who are your favorite characters?  Has Free Comic Book Day introduced you to any new favorites?  Want to school me on some of the story arcs and characters I briefly mentioned just now?  Go for it!

Posted in comics, family, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, romantic | Leave a comment

Dreadnought

DreadnoughtApril Daniels. Dreadnought. New York: Diversion Books, 2017.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 color-changing costumes with built-in USB ports

It’s been a summer of superheroes for me. I’ve been keeping up with the new America comics every month, as well as catching up on some of America Chavez’s previous iterations in Young Avengers, The Ultimates, A-Force, and her very first appearance in Vengeance. I’ve also been catching up on all the Ms. Marvels, but more on all of those in a future post.

First, let’s talk Dreadnought. There have been a couple of great firsts in the superhero sphere in recent years – the first lesbian Latina super, the first Muslim American super, and now the first transgender super.

New Port City is home to a super team called the Legion Pacifica, and their MVP is Dreadnought. “Mightier than a battleship, faster than a jet, and so on,” Dreadnought is America’s first and most famous metahuman, and he is not supposed to be lying in a crumpled heap in an alley after a supervillain attack. [1] But that’s exactly how Danny Tozer finds him. And that’s when something completely surreal happens.

In his dying moments, Dreadnought passes the mantle onto Danny (apparently being “Dreadnought” is like being “the Dread Pirate Roberts”), and part of taking the mantle means that Danny’s body gets to transform into what she’s always wanted. But the awesome thing about this story is that it doesn’t make this The Moment Everything Was Perfect From Now On. Danny still has to fight for her happily ever after. She still has to deal with jerks like her father, her former best friend David, and some of the members of Legion Pacifica who aren’t ok with the new Dreadnought being a transgender woman.

Basically, Danny may have gotten an opportunity that no one outside of a fantasy book ever gets, but she still has to deal with real life obstacles, and neither her superpowers, nor her new body, make those obstacles any easier to overcome.

So, Dreadnought is no Queer Utopia. On the other hand, does it fall into the equally problematic category of Queer Tragedy™? The story does pile a series of more-than-microaggressions onto Danny, plot points that lead to a semi-climax that centers on her queer identity. And one of those plot points is a pretty two-dimensional father who bullies Danny with classic derogatory language and hatred of anything that’s not hetero-manly.

But notice how I said the agressions only lead to a semi-climax. The major climax has nothing to do with Danny being transgender, but rather her identity as the new Dreadnought. In other words, I think the story balances well between showing real-life problems that do happen to some members of the LGBTQIA community and focusing on plot points that have nothing to do with a person’s queer identity.

Oh, and the other great thing is that the story doesn’t suggest that Danny’s fantasy transformation makes her more “real” as a woman than she was before, or that there’s such a thing as the “right” female body, or even that Danny is no longer transgender now that her body more closely matches her identity.

A few nitpicks

One thing that lowered my rating was the way the metahuman community is separated into categories of “whitecapes” and “blackcapes,” the former of course being the good guys and the latter being the villains. I’ve said before how I really don’t like that dichotomy of whiteness = good vs. blackness = evil. That kind of ideology can and has been used against people for centuries. It’s just become so easy to use these black and white categories in our language, but there must be some other way to label good and bad. Any fun ideas? Leave them in the comments!

There were also some moments that required some pretty big suspension of disbelief – like how quickly Danny’s school administration adjusted to her transformation. They knew her only as a boy before, and all it took was her mother vouching for her identity for them to agree that the new girl was actually Danny Tozer. I guess the whole superheroes-and-magic-exist thing made the admins much less easily surprised by unusual events?

And then there was the moment where Danny privately wondered whether a person who became disabled could continue superheroing, and her view was never challenged.

Overall

The sequel, Sovereign, just came out at the end of July, and I’m totally going for it. OtherSovereign than that problematic whitecapes vs. blackcapes business, Daniels has done some very nice worldbuilding in Dreadnought that I’d like to explore a bit more. What’s going to happen with the Legion now? How is Danny going to fit in with them, and how is she going to handle her new fame as the official Dreadnought #4? What is Nemesis and how is it going to affect Earth? Are Danny and Sarah going to become an item? (wait, is that just me hoping that? 😉 ) On that last note, though, I will say Dreadnought is another of those refreshing new YAs that don’t tack on an unnecessary romance for their teen female protagonists.

Let the Summer of Superheroes continue!

 

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[1] Pg. 8

Posted in family, fantasy, favorites, LGBTQIA | Leave a comment

Classic Juv/YA Fantasy: The Princess Bride

PrincessBridecoverWilliam Goldman. The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

Rating: 4.85 out of 5 chocolate-covered resurrection pills

Rating #2: This book is so good I read it twice in a row, and I keep going back to all the pages I dog-eared, re-reading all the clever lines and funny moments.

So, this is one of those instances where I saw the movie first. Of course I saw the movie first – it’s a childhood classic. It’s the “good parts edition” of Goldman’s “good parts edition,” leaving out most of the (admittedly awesome – more on that later) authorial interruptions. It’s one of the most quotable films ever, with such gems as “As you wish,” and “Have fun storming the castle!” and “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Inigo Montoya sticker

And Goldman doesn’t blame me one bit. He already knew, by the time the 1998 edition of the book was published, that most new readers would have seen the movie first. “I doubt that my publishers would have sprung for this edition if the movie hadn’t happened,” he says in his intro to the 25th anniversary edition. “If you’re reading this, dollars to donuts you’ve seen the movie.”

Now, I may be cheating just a bit, calling this a Classic Juv/YA fantasy. At least at my local library, the book is located in the adult section. But Goldman-the-narrator insists that The Princess Bride – at least his “good parts edition” – is a children’s classic. And I, too, am positive it’s the kind of story that would appeal at least to teen readers (younger readers might get bored by all the authorial interruptions, and there’s a brief, mild sex scene in the Buttercup’s Baby chapter), so I’m going to take blogger’s license and say it counts.

There’s so much I want to talk about with this book – the meta-ness, the memorable characters, the way it both parodies and yet matches the fairy tale style – but some of what I want to talk about includes spoilers – even for those of you who’ve seen the movie – so I’m going to split this post into two pages. For the non-spoiler edition, you can safely continue reading. For the spoilers, go to page 2.

Meta Madness

This is one of the most meta books I’ve ever read. I mentioned in my review of My Lady Jane that that book mimics The Princess Bride with its authorial interruptions and parenthetical comments. Well, MLJ is a totally straightforward, one-level story compared to The Princess Bride. The premise of Goldman’s story is that it’s an annotated abridgement of an original, much longer book by an obscure writer from a small European country, which is based on real people and events. Even Goldman’s introductions add to the story, describing his travels to Florin; his legal battles with the Morgenstern estate; his fight for permission to abridge at least the first chapter of the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby; and his interactions with the cast and crew of the movie.

Did you know Andre the Giant actually climbed the Cliffs of Insanity in preparation for his role as Fezzik? I didn’t know that. And you can actually see the six-fingered sword if you go to the Morgenstern Museum in Florin!

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Throughout the story, Goldman-the-narrator interrupts the action to remember his childhood reactions to the story as read to him by his father; to mention the long, boring passages his father had skipped, and which Goldman in turn left out of his “good parts edition”; and to warn us about upcoming events that just don’t seem fair or poetically just, considering this is supposed to be a fairy tale, and fairy tales are supposed to be fair, aren’t they?

A Modern Fairy Tale (Parody?)

The thing about fairy tales, though, is that even the original tales weren’t always fair or in line with the rules of poetic justice. Sometimes the villains got away. Sometimes the heroes died before their “happily ever afters.” Sometimes “true love” fizzled at the first inconvenience. Read stories like the “The Yellow Dwarf,” “The Princess Mayblossom,” and Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” for examples.

So Morgenstern/Goldman’s “unfair” fairy tale really isn’t out of line with other tales. It’s a satire on tales of true love and heroics, but even some of the classic tales seem like a challenge to the happily-ever-after type.

Fairy tale characters

One big way in which The Princess Bride mimics/parodies classic fairy tales is through its use of extreme characters – people with extraordinary talents or attributes, like Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world; Domingo, the hermit who makes swords that are more than masterpieces, swords “for the ages”; Inigo, the fencer who is so good he can fence with his non-dominant hand, using a sword made for someone with an extra finger; Fezzik, the giant fighter who was adult-size since he was a toddler; Humperdinck, the expert hunter who’s so good he builds himself a five-level Zoo of Death just to exercise his skills; and Westley, the lover so true he can ignore torture just by focusing his mind on his beloved.

Yet, Goldman’s protagonists are more than two-dimensional wonder men and women. Fezzik and Inigo get fully fleshed-out backstories describing their childhoods and the work it took to become who they are today. Actually, they remind me a lot of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with their insecurities that they keep proving wrong without realizing it. Like when Inigo insists he can’t accomplish his ultimate goal of avenging his father without Vizzini doing the thinking for him, but then figures out a plan all by himself. Or when Fezzik keeps insisting on his own stupidity and uselessness, but manages to find Inigo and nurse him back to health all by himself, and also gets those horses when they’re most needed.

Westley apparently has a backstory, too, though it’s in the unpublished chapters of Buttercup’s Baby, but his realism comes more from those moments when, despite his extreme strength of will, he does get a little weary of all those heroic deeds. “I’m tired, Buttercup,” he tells his beloved. “[D]o you understand tired? I’ve put in a night, is what I’m trying to get through to you.” [1]

Even Princess Buttercup herself is more than just a stereotypical damsel in distress.

Princess Buttercup

I’ve got mixed feelings about Buttercup. Just in that description of the wonder characters, you can see the problem – the one female protagonist is just there as eye candy, while the men get to do all the action and heroics, right? Goldman, Westley, and even Buttercup herself like to periodically comment on her airheadedness. She spends most of the story just sitting/standing by and waiting for either Westley or Humperdinck to rescue her. There’s even a moment (and this is where the book lost some points with me) when Westley refers to Buttercup as his property and orders her around. Oh, and slaps her at one point.  And the movie lost points in the Fire Swamp, when Buttercup just stood helplessly by while Westley was being attacked by an R.O.U.S. (ok, she did eventually pick up a stick and start swatting at it, but for the most part? She’s pretty useless in that scene).

Fire Swamp

Yet, this is all part of the parody, isn’t it? Goldman is poking fun at those fairy tales in which the princess just sits in a tower or sleeps for a hundred years or passively goes along with whichever man wins her in a contest.

But Buttercup isn’t entirely passive, and this, too, is part of the parody. “Enough about my beauty,” she tells Westley at one point, after he’s been waxing poetic about her physical attributes. “Everybody always talks about how beautiful I am. I’ve got a mind, Westley. Talk about that.” [2] And though her mind never “expand[s] horizons,” she does eventually see through Humperdinck’s lies, tries twice to get away from her kidnappers, and takes charge several times when all the male protagonists are at their wits’ end.

And she doesn’t let true love get in the way of her self-interest. It may be an unattractive quality according to other characters, but I kind of give Buttercup props for that moment of selfishness in the Fire Swamp, even as I love the more noble Buttercup in the movie.

So, on the one hand, Goldman makes Buttercup a typical damsel in distress waiting for her true love to rescue her, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want to be just “a silly girl” with a pretty face, and over the course of the story, she develops more independent thought and heroism, putting her more in line with the clever girls and women in fairy tales like “The Snow Queen,” “Allerleirauh,” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”

A Modern Tale of True Love and High Adventure

And so, Goldman’s story is both a meta satire on true love tales, and a pretty classic fairy tale in and of itself. In any case, it’s one of my new favorite books ever. The movie I loved just as much, though its tone is totally different. Yes, there is still the frame story of the little boy being read the story while he’s sick in bed, and there are the few interruptions, but for the most part, the movie is a straightforward love story. My best friend and I were talking about this recently, and we realized the big difference between the movie and the book — you can really feel that Buttercup and Westley are in love in the movie, whereas the book is a satire that makes you keep questioning the depth of that love (at least on one side — more on page 2). And I love them both.

Posted in Classic Juv/YA fantasy, fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, humor, meta, movies, romantic, satire | 4 Comments

Our Own Private Universe

UniverseRobin Talley. Our Own Private Universe. Ontario: HarlequinTEEN, 2017.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Prince songs that are secretly your favorite song ever

This book, you guys. This book is sexy like woah. Like, it goes into all the steamy, graphic details.    This book is not to be read without a tall glass of ice water nearby.

Aki Simon is fifteen, and has recently realized she might be bisexual, and this summer may be her first chance to test her theory. Of course, on her very first night in Mexico, where she and forty other church youth travel for a volunteer project, she meets the perfect girl. Christa is older, probably more experienced, and totally cute, and totally seems to be into Aki. Are they up for a summer fling, or could this turn into something more serious?

One of the great things about Robin Talley, as I first discovered in What We Left Behind, is how she explores the different questions readers might have about LGBT experiences. Her LGBT characters have those same questions about themselves, and that’s totally ok. Like, what exactly does it mean to be bisexual? Do you have to be equally attracted to guys and girls? If you choose to be monogamous with someone, does that suddenly make you straight or gay?

It used to be that whenever I pictured my grown-up, married life, I was always married to a faceless guy. Now, though, I usually saw myself with a faceless girl. Did that mean I was gay now? Or gayer than I used to be, at least?
Were bi people always supposed to be exactly bi? Did it have to be fifty-fifty, or could it be, say, sixty-forty? And could it be different percentages on different days? [1]

And how exactly do you have sex with another girl?

These kinds of questions make the characters very real and relatable. Some are pretty sure of who and what they are, while others are figuring it out day to day.

I also like how cool Aki’s church sounds:

Holy Life churches aren’t the kind where preachers talk constantly about how abortion is evil and how we should all vote Republican or anything, though. I mean, some people at my church probably do vote Republican, but mostly we don’t talk about that stuff. Instead, we get together for picnics and ice-cream socials, and on Sunday mornings we sing hymns and listen to sermons about whatever Jesus did that week. [2]

The one thing I wasn’t so sure I liked was the occasional inconsistency with Christa’s character – she says she wants to be really careful about who finds out about her relationship with Aki, but she’s inconsistent in how careful she is to hide that relationship. The story starts with her openly flirting with Aki, and admitting to Aki’s best friend that she likes girls. But for the rest of the story, she freaks out any time she thinks someone might have seen her and Aki together. Then again, Aki does notice this as an inconsistency, so maybe it’s just part of what makes Christa a complicated character.

Another thing that slightly threw me off was how much free time these volunteers seem to have to constantly wander around the town, considering they’re supposed to be helping build a new church and doing other projects, and they only have about a month to do it all.

Other than that, though, this is a lovely, steamy summer romance with well-developed, relatable characters. And yes, you do find out what Aki’s favorite Prince song is 🙂

 

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[1] Pg. 314

[2] Pg. 37

Posted in family, LGBTQIA, music, romantic | 5 Comments

My Lady Jane

My Lady JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. My Lady Jane. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. Kindle ed.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stacks of books brought along on the honeymoon

So, this is my first foray into alternate historic fiction, and the reviews promised it would be really funny.  And they were absolutely right.  I hadn’t known anything about the history of Lady Jane Grey and fairly little about the Tudors, but already I like this version better.  Hand, Ashton, and Meadows have decided that Lady Jane deserved better than to be beheaded after just nine days as Queen of England, and sixteenth-century England itself deserved a strong infusion of magic, just to shake things up.

In 1553, this alternate England is split between two groups – the Eðians (the fancy curved “d” is pronounced “th”) and the Verities.  The former are people with the power to transform back and forth between human and animal form.  The latter are non-magical folk who think spending half your time as an animal is a most distasteful affair and you should be burned at the stake for doing it.  Unfortunately for the Verities, who’d been enjoying most of the power for centuries, King Henry VIII turned out to be an Eðian– a lion, specifically – and decided to grant equal rights to his fellow Eðians as soon as he discovered his power.

Then he died and left his throne to his youngest son, Edward, who is now dying of a mysterious “Affliction,” and the throne seems to be up for grabs. This is where the story begins.

What I liked best:

The characters – Well-developed, memorable characters with learning curves and unique qualities that aren’t just quirks for quirks’ sake?  Check!  Jane is a serious bibliophile who will devour any subject, from architectural history to the history of beets, and has a tendency to start mentally rattling off synonyms when she’s stressed.  Gifford (but he’d really rather we call him G) is a secret poet who covers up his embarrassing hobby with tales of nighttime dalliances, and has a peculiar daytime condition that may or may not be controllable.  Edward is a reluctant king who’d really just like to spend his last days sitting with his favorite dog, eating bowlfuls of blackberries, but suddenly has to think about things like succession and Eðian rights, and whether women really are inferior to men (spoiler alert: nope!).

The humor – From dedication to acknowledgements, this book is tons of fun.  Part of the humor comes from the Princess Bride-esque style of the story, with its numerous parenthetical comments (though not quite as numerous as in The Princess Bride) and authorial interruptions.  And part of it comes from the reference jokes that are sprinkled in like Easter Eggs – horses named Westley, Monty Python-esque swordfight banter, a random Game of Thrones reference, etc.  And another part comes from the use of exaggeration, like every time the authors/narrators mention the Dudley nose:

It may help the reader to recall the long-nosed plague doctor mask that would appear in the next several decades. It is said the design of those beaked masks was actually inspired by the Dudley nose, though never within a Dudley heir’s hearing. [1]

And, on a random note, I’m by no means whatsoever an anti-Stratfordian, but I can totally forgive the authors for toying with the idea that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.  Because this is a comedy, and they can get away with it.

And, on another random note, who knew sixteenth-century teenagers used such delightfully modern phrases as “totally,” and “Hold your horses,” and “He’s my ex,” and “Would you like to paint my portrait, Sire? It will last longer”?

Some nitpicking:

A few things that slightly lowered my rating:

Gracie MacTavish is so not the kind of person who would follow a guy she has every reason to distrust just because he has “kind eyes” and a “nice smile.”

Also, I’m pretty sure a single dog couldn’t hold off a pack of wolves so easily.

And also, I’m pretty sure a fight with a gargantuan bear in a forest would involve more trees being knocked down and such.

Overall:

Fencing.  Fighting.  True love.  Magic.  Political intrigue.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  If such are the things you love in a book, go to your nearest library or bookstore and pick up My Lady Jane.  Go on.  I’ll wait for you here so we can squee about it afterwards.

P.S.  In my mental movie adaptation, I’ve cast Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) as Jane, Jack Gleeson (Joffrey) as Edward, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Gifford.

 

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[1] Loc. 707

Posted in fantasy, favorites, historical, humor, romantic | 3 Comments

Picture Book Parade: Somewhere out there (really out there)

Today’s round of picture books comes from the land of out there… a land of whimsy and silliness, where bears look to “find themselves” in enchanted forests; where goons in tombs fish in black lagoons; where gnomes compete for the best beard style; babies rule households with their little iron fists; and wild animals take in humans as their pets.

Come with me…

King Baby 1Kate Beaton.  King Baby.  New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2006.

Can we just agree that Kate Beaton is the funniest?  And that everyone has to buy this book for the next baby shower they’re invited to?  Yes?  Good!  But srsly, Kate Beaton can make any subject hilarious — history, literature, that one guy in the first five minutes of that Janet Jackson video, and now babies!  Babies really are just adorable little tyrants, aren’t they?  They may be generous with their smiles and giggles and picture poses, but they have many demands, and if you fail to fulfill their demands, they will take things into their King Baby 3own little hands.

You may have seen King Baby on Beaton’s Twitter and Tumblr in years past, but whether you have or whether you’re meeting him for the first time, you’re in for a treat!  Now he’s in color!  With arms and legs!  And developmental milestones!  All hail King Baby!

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Gnome 1

Kirsten Mayer.  Go Big or Go Gnome.  New York: Imprint, 2017.

Poor Al.  Al is a gnome, and most gnomes have beards.  Not just any beards, but “imperial” beards, and “illustrious” mustaches.  But not Al.  His face is as smooth as a baby gnome’s bottom.  And that wouldn’t be so bad, except every year there’s an awesome contest called the Beards International Gnome-athlon (B.I.G.), and Al would really love to participate.  But, well, no beard.

But then, Al’s totally thoughtful best friend Gnorm is like, “Hey Al, I know you’re all bummed ‘cuz you can’t be in the B.I.G. like me, but ZOMG you’ve got to help me with my beard!”  And Al, being the totally not bitter type, and having a penchant for the pruning shears, helps his buddy out.  Which leads Al to realize he does have an award-winning talent after all!

So, that’s all sweet and wholesome messages and all, but in all seriousness…

ZOMG LOOK AT THESE BEARDS.

Gnome 3  Gnome 2  Gnome 4

THESE ARE THE MOST AMAZING BEARDS.  AL IS THE MOST TALENTED, IS HE NOT?

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BearOren Lavie.  The Bear Who Wasn’t There and the Fabulous Forest.  Brooklyn, Ny: Akashic, 2016.

It starts with an itch.  And then the itch begins to scratch.  And then the itch becomes a bear.  Because, while “everybody knows that bears scratch when they itch … not many people know that itches scratch when they’re bears!”  And this is an optimistic bear who starts his existence with an “Absolutely yes!” and proceeds to wander through a Fabulous Forest (also pretty  new in existence — kind of like the new Fantastica in The Neverending Story…the book, not the movie), meeting surreal characters like the Penultimate Penguin and the Convenience Cow.

It is, indeed, a surreal and whimsical story — as dream-like as Alice in Wonderland — that teaches lessons such as:  “Flowers are more Beautiful than they are thirty-eight.”  And it’s all so matter-of-fact (except at the very beginning, but you can’t really fault the narrator for being surprised that the itch turns into a BEAR) as it pulls you into this dream world.

And matching the matter-of-fact tone are the earthy illustrations by Wolf Erlbruch, with their down-to-earth forest greens and tree-bark browns against a parchment-yellow background.  Everything seems so natural in this environment, even the upright-walking bear with the saucer-round eyes and goofy red smile.

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Children PetsPeter Brown.  Children Make Terrible Pets.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Time to meet another upright-walking bear, the tutu-wearing Lucy, who I totally imagine talks like Grenda, from Gravity Falls.  Now you’ll have that voice stuck in Grendayour head, too, bwahahaha!

Anyway, Grenda Lucy is out dancing in the forest one day, when she finds THE CUTEST CRITTER EVER — a human boy!  He’s so cute and little, and he squeaks!  Lucy’s mom says children are the worst pets, but Lucy promises she’ll totally take care of Squeaker all by herself.  How much trouble can one kid be, right?

Brown got the idea for this story from his childhood, when he brought home a frog and his mother asked him, “Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?”  Well, little Peter thought that was an awesome idea!  And to make it even more awesome, he tells the story like a comic book, with all the characters talking into big color-coded speech bubbles, and the narration happening in big blue text boxes.  So, the next time your kid or your kid sibling tells you they want a pet polar bear, just distract them with this book!

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Goon 1Michael Rex.  Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

So, y’all know Goodnight Moon, a timeless part of American bedtime rituals since 1947.  Well, Michael Rex wants to turn that cozy green room upside down, switching out the sweet little bunny with a sweet monkey-like monster, trading the “three little bears sitting on chairs” with “three little mummies rubbing their tummies,” and swapping the kittens Goon 2and mittens for “two hairy claws / And a set of jaws.”  And so on with the creepy and ooky and spooky rhyming imagery.

If your children are familiar with Goodnight Moon, this is the perfect counterpoint for post-Trick-or-Treating bedtime.  If you’re not as familiar with the original, this is still an awesomely out-there Halloween season story.  Tell the martians I said hi!

 

Posted in fantasy, favorites, humor, Picture Book Parade, picture books, spooky | 2 Comments

Lots and lots of comics

HildaHow did everyone make out on Free Comic Book Day?  I was only able to visit one comics store this year, but I did discover some new titles to keep an eye on.  Particularly Hilda, from Nobrow Press, and I Hate Fairyland, from Image Comics.  The former is about “a headstrong little girl’s adventures through a Nordic mythscape,” according to NPR’s guide to this year’s FCBD.  Norse mythscape?  Trolls and changelings?  A cartooney little girl who sort of reminds me of Mabel from Gravity Falls?  Deal me in!

The latter I first learned about from sj on Insatiable Booksluts (note: super salty language), who was hooked by the presence of: faeries and
unicorns, zombies, creative swearing, and lots of blood.  Now, I’m not usually a fan of super gory-gross violence in my media.  And I’m still on the fence about whether I want to further immerse myself in the Holy Sugar That’s Violent world of I Hate Fairyland after reading Volume 1 and the FCBD one-shot.  It’s just…it’s done in such a goofy, humorous way, and that contrast between the cutesy as fluff setting and the horror movie blood-letting is really funny.  But also disturbing as hell hugs.

Fairyland
I mean, this girl.  She’s got style, amirite?  Look at that meta humor.

And you know I love creative swearing/exclamations.  In Fairyland, every time Gertrude tries to swear, it comes out as cutesy words like “huggin’ puffin'” and “muffin fluffin’.”  It’s funny!

You know what’s not so funny, though?  Watching a human woman get smashed in the face with a stool, and kicked in the boob, and also the kneecap… That’s just the first few panels in the FCBD episode, I Hate Image, in which Gertrude travels to the land of Image Comics characters.  I mean, I like trying out new genres and stuff, but…I have my limits, you know?

Colorful MonstersOn a more kid-friendly note, I also enjoyed leafing through Drawn & Quarterly’s Colorful Monsters, which features the sweet creature stylings of Moomin, Elise Gravel, Anouk Ricard, and Shigeru Mizuki.  There are kind (but also slightly ruthless) hippos and opportunistic weasel/kangaroos, grumpy tomatoes, vampire hedgehogs (well, what do you think he looks like?), lovebird worms, and a Dr. Seuss-like seal-headed creature with a super long neck, among other fun creatures.

Anyhoo, those were my FCBD finds, but now we’re going to look at some of the other comics I’ve been reading these past few weeks.

Ms. Marvel

I’ve never really followed the DC/Marvel universe, other than watching the Spiderman and X-Men movies and reading a really neat and gritty Rogue/Logan fanfic, but when I found out about two of the newest superheroes — America Chavez, the
first lesbian Latina super, and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim-American super — my interest was piqued.  Kamala and America are heroes for the 21st century.  Kamala writes Avengers fanfic and deals with concern trolls at her high school.  America connects with her fans on social media.  But they’re also just classic kick-ass young women who don’t let the social norms of previous generations limit them.

Ms Marvel

Now, with Ms. Marvel, I felt pretty secure without any prior knowledge of the Avengers or Captain Marvel (though, I at least roughly know who Carol Danvers is from reading that X-Men fanfic I mentioned earlier).  Kamala is a totally new character, and I can follow her story pretty easily without a lot of context.  America was a little harder to settle into without knowing anything about her prior roles in The Ultimates and Young Avengers, or how this new comic matches or diverges from the style of earlier Marvel comics.  I have no idea what the Utopian Parallel is, or whether the out-of-the-blue and over-in-a-flashness of America’s breakup with Lisa is just the style of this genre.  But more about America in a bit.

As a character, I love that, in terms of her identity as Muslim, Kamala is portrayed as an individual rather than a stereotype — her experience is not the Muslim-American experience, but a Muslim-American experience.  Her parents and brother are more traditional, while Kamala wants to go to parties, hang out with boys, and work on her superhero fangirling.  Her best friend Nakia chooses to wear a head scarf in school; Kamala doesn’t.  And she isn’t a 2D rebel either.  Kamala does challenge some of the traditional tenets of her family, culture and religion, but she also wants to defend her family when her peers make negative assumptions about them.

Ms Marvel2

She’s also fiercely loyal to her hometown, Jersey City, and will do anything to protect it from the evil stylings of some guy called The Inventor (who’s totally not a bird!).  The overall story has me hooked, but I did have to put on my suspension-of-disbelief goggles for some parts — like how, even though her parents are against her hanging out with boys, they apparently totally don’t mind that her second-best friend is a guy.  Or how, even though they’re aware she’s still sneaking out at all hours after they grounded her for one such incident, they barely do a thing to stop her.

Or how, ok, they do make her talk to the local sheikh (a religious leader), but when she vaguely explains she’s been “helping people,” he doesn’t insist she tell him more about this secret “helping” she’s doing late at night, which she doesn’t want her parents to know about.  Nope, he’s totally not concerned that she might be doing something dangerous because “helping people” sounds totally legit.

Oh well, she gets to meet Wolverine and the Inhumans, and finds out some neat stuff about her origins, and I want to find out where this Inventor arc is going.

America

So, as I mentioned earlier, it would’ve been neat to read America having already met her before, and being able to compare her style in these new comics with that of her previous iterations.  On the other hand, the new comics do at least offer a little info on her backstory and the characters she interacts with, and this new story is intriguing enough that I’m sure I’ll be going back to Books, Comics & Things each month.

The basic storyline is that America is tired of the superhero business and wants to try out college for a while.  So, of course, she goes to a university for superheroes and mutants, and of course she gets sucked into a battle against cyborgs on her second day.

America2
Oh, and punches Hitler on her first day.
I’m pretty sure you can’t have a superhero comic without
someone punching Hitler at some point.

As a character, America is cocky, sarcastic, and shoot-first-ask-questions-later, but with a hidden soft side.  Pretty classic, I know.  Still, her sassy comments are funny, and how awesome is it to have a butt-kicking lesbian Latina representing the U.S. and punching racism and bigotry in the face??  I totally want to find out more about her origins, too…like, she mentions she doesn’t have any ancestors, so was she born from midichlorians or something?  Or does she just mean she was adopted, so she doesn’t know her ancestors?

I loved the other characters too, like:

  • X’Andria — leader of a sorority for “Fifth Element soldier babes”
  • Prodigy — genius who used to be a mutant and Young Avenger, who’s working on a time machine called the Wayback
  • Professor Douglas — teacher of Intergalactic Revolutionaries and You
  • Lunella — 9-year-old Inhuman and smartest person in the world, who leads lectures with her T-Rex sidekick.
  • Imani — tween from the Utopian Parallel who adorably (and then disturbingly) hero-worships America

America

Issue #3 comes out tomorrow, in which America’s going to team up with the X-Men.  You coming, mi gente?

Strong Female Protagonist

So, this is like a cross between X-Men and The Incredibles that started as a webcomic, and now has a book that gathers together issues 1-4.  Alison Green is a 20-year-old college student in New York City (of course), just trying to fit back into regular society after her stint as Mega-Girl.  But ever since she took off her domino mask on live TV, she can’t catch a break.  Her philosophy prof thinks she can’t possibly understand the human condition.  Random teenagers on the street try to dent trash can lids on her head.  She literally can’t get a tattoo.  And then there’s the still-somewhere-out-there villain known as Menace.

It’s a story about the not so glamorous side of vigilante justice, the damage caused by those downtown battles, and the public fear that surrounds people who are different.

SFP

Like Kate Beaton in her Hark! A Vagrant! collections, the creators of Strong Female Protagonist add funny commentary at the bottom of each page of the book.  Besides the awesome story and its social commentary, of course, those page-bottom comments are my favorite part.  I’m seriously hoping they come out with a Book Two so I can read more of them.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading lately.  How about you?  Any comics you think deserve ALL THE LOVE?  Leave ’em in the comments!

Posted in comics, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, meta | 1 Comment

“Nothing about him reminded me of humanity.”

So, did everyone see Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast?  Any thoughts?  I thought it was an ok remake, though of course the 1991 film was better.  Only Angela Lansbury can sing the title song, amirite?

I did like the very Rococo style going on inside the castle, very fitting for the time period (late 18th century France) in which the original novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was published.

Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-Posters

And did you notice they called Belle’s village Villeneuve? 😀

As it happens, one of the units in the Rutgers fairy tale course is about the evolution of Beauty and the Beast tales.  As with the Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard units, I read some stories beyond the syllabus, including the original version by Villeneuve and Angela Carter’s two BatB stories.

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 Note: Mature topics and SPOILERS ahead for all the stories discussed.

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 The origins of “Beauty and the Beast”

I say that Villeneuve’s is the original version of the story called “Beauty and the Beast,” but, in fact, the story (as a literary fairy tale) can be traced back to Apuleius’ 2nd-century “Cupid and Psyche.”  Villeneuve carried over many details and plot points from Apuleius’ story into her novella:

 Apuleius:  To appease the goddess Venus, who is offended by the mortal princess Psyche’s beauty, the god Apollo decrees that Psyche will marry a vicious creature. Venus is later furious with Cupid for marrying Psyche instead because they are not equals.

 Villeneuve:  A cranky fairy decrees that the princess known as Beauty will “become the bride of a monster, to expiate the folly of a mother who had the frailty to let herself be captivated by the fleeting and contemptible beauty of a mortal” – referring to the law that a Fairy can’t marry someone with less power than her own. [1]

 Apuleius:  Psyche’s preparation for her journey to the appointed wedding spot is described in funereal terms — “black torches were lighted, the pleasant songs were turned into pitiful cries, the melody of Hymen was ended with deadly howling, the maiden that should be married did wipe her eyes with her veil …” [2]

 Villeneuve:  The display of fireworks and other lights that greet Beauty when she arrives at the Beast’s palace prompts her to comment, “that the preparations for her death were more brilliant than the bridal pomp of the greatest king in the world.” [3]

 Apuleius: Every night, Psyche is visited by her mysterious husband, who she discovers is not a beast, but is really the god Cupid.

 Villeneuve: Every evening, Beauty dines with the Beast, and every night, she dreams of his true form, which is described as “beautiful as Cupid is painted.” [4]

cupid-kissing-psyche

And so on.

The better-known early version of “Beauty and the Beast” is the one written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, which greatly condenses Villeneuve’s novella – Beauty has five siblings instead of eleven; she visits her family for just over a week instead of two months; and gone are all the details of her life with her family and with the Beast, as well as all the backstories – Beaumont’s story ends very soon after the Beast’s transformation.

Beauty is not a princess in disguise in Beaumont’s tale, but simply a merchant’s daughter, so the story becomes more of a rags-to-riches type, and the Beast asks Beauty to marry him each night instead of to sleep with him, because Beaumont intended her version for a much younger audience. What remains is the main message about choosing inner qualities like kindness and virtue over physical attraction. Overall, Beaumont’s is a simpler story than Villeneuve’s.

Personally, I like Villeneuve’s better, with its fleshed-out descriptions of Beauty’s life with her adoptive family in the city and country, her time in the Beast’s palace, and the backstories of the prince/Beast, as well as of Beauty’s birth family. My favorite part was the forbidden-love story of the Fairy and the king of the Happy Isle, and how it affected the lives of Beauty and the prince/Beast. I liked the details of the Fairy order that lives in the sky and does good deeds around the world, but is supposed to stay detached from human beings, yet can’t help getting tangled up in human lives anyway.

Mixed Messages: Autonomy vs. Obedience

One notable difference between Apuleius’ story and Villeneuve’s is the level of freedom and choice that Beauty seems to have. In Apuleius’ tale, Psyche has no choice in giving herself up to her appointed husband; the gods ordered it, so she must go, whereas Villeneuve’s Beast insists that Beauty come to him of her own free will. And, whereas Cupid consummates his marriage to Psyche whether she wants to or not, the Beast (at least in the Dowson translation) asks Beauty every evening if he may sleep with her, and leaves her alone each time she rejects him.

Beauty and the Beast TalesIn her introduction to the SurLaLune collection of Beauty and the Beast tales, Heidi Anne Heiner argues that the Beast’s question “implies control and choice for Beauty over her own body and sexuality, something that was not legally hers or that of any woman who was handed over as property in marriage to a husband in centuries past.” [5]

On the other hand, just like the stories we discussed in the last post, “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale of obedience – in this case, a woman’s obedience and self-sacrifice to the husband chosen for her. According to Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast tales reflect the idea that “the female partner in arranged marriages of an earlier era was … expected to give up any notion of autonomy.” [6] And Beauty’s relationship with the Beast is an arranged marriage in Villeneuve’s version (arranged by the Fairies, in this case), despite the Beast’s insistence that she come to him by choice. “Marriage in general,” says Tatar, “was seen as the ‘absolute surrender’ of woman to man.” When the Beast, upon first meeting Beauty, asks what she thinks he’ll do to her once she’s alone with him, she replies, “Whatever may seem good to you … my life is at your disposal, and I am ready to submit myself blindly to whatever fate you have reserved for me.” [7]

This focus on wifely obedience is coupled with the message that when dealing with a man, a woman should act not according to her own desires, but out of a sense of gratitude. Beauty is pressured, both internally and by other characters, to “[o]bey the impulses of gratitude” (presumably when the Beast asks to sleep with/marry her). [8] She can’t even leave the palace to visit her family without being called ungrateful, especially when her visit lasts longer than expected. Basically, if a guy buys you fancy dinners and clothes and expensive entertainment, you owe him your body and your complete loyalty in return, whether you’re really into him or not :-/

Even Angela Carter, in her more modern collection of fairy tales, gives her Beauty a questionable level of sexual autonomy in “The Tiger’s Bride.” Though the narrator at first shames the tiger-man for asking to see her naked body, he only lets her go after she shows some skin – and after he forces her to look at his own naked body. True, the narrator chooses to stay with him in the end, but where else would she have gone in those times? Her father was happy without her as long as he had his riches, and would probably have gambled her away again the next time he was desperate.

Mixed Messages: You have a great personality

Then there’s the better-known theme of Beauty and the Beast stories – inner vs. outer beauty. Apuleius’ story is all about the dangers of physical beauty (for mortals, at least). Psyche’s problems start because she’s considered more beautiful than Venus, invoking the goddess’ wrath. Then she loses Cupid because she tries to see his physical appearance instead of blindly trusting that the person she sleeps with every night is not, in fact, a vicious monster (even though everyone tells her he’s a vicious monster… :-/ ). And then, circling back to the first problem, she fails the last test in her search for Cupid because she tries to use a gift of divine beauty on herself instead of giving it all to Venus.

The message, though, is not so much “focus on personality instead of appearances” as it is “know your place,” or “mortal beauty should not upstage divine beauty.” And even that’s not so clear, because, in the end, Cupid comes back to Psyche and she’s invited to live with the gods despite Venus’ jealousy. It’s certainly not a tale of choosing virtue over physical beauty, because, as Tatar notes, Psyche’s final test also involves ignoring people who ask her for help. Whereas the Beauty in later stories is encouraged to make her final choice out of pity and compassion, Psyche is encouraged to harden her heart in order to get the gift of divine beauty. [9]

It is Villeneuve and later writers who added the message about choosing inner qualities over physical beauty. In Villeneuve’s version, the characters in Beauty’s dreams constantly tell her not to trust appearances, and in Beaumont’s story, Beauty reminds herself in the end that, “it is neither wit, nor a fine person, in a husband, that makes a woman happy, but virtue, sweetness of temper, and complaisance …” [10] Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” even goes so far as to say that the Beast, a lion in this case instead of an elephant-nosed creature, is more beautiful than a human man.

BatBInterestingly, in Disney’s versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s the prince, rather than Belle, who has to learn the lesson about valuing inner qualities over outer beauty. He rejected a woman based on her appearance, so now he has to find a woman who will look past his appearance. This comes from Villeneuve’s story, in which the prince is cursed because he rejected the marriage proposal of an old Fairy – though it’s actually the prince’s mother who explicitly insulted the Fairy’s appearance.

And yet, despite all these claims that personality is more important than physical appearance, even Carter’s Beauty (in “Mr. Lyon”) still gets a human stud in the end, as an ironic reward for not choosing by physical appearance. In fact, near the end of Villeneuve’s story, Beauty is told that by choosing the Beast, she can have both the husband she feels obligated to choose and the Cupid-like man she’s been dreaming of. On the one hand, this is meant to be a huge clue-by-four to the head that the two men are the same person. On the other hand, it could have also been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink suggestion that a woman can marry one man out of duty, but have a side fling to fulfill her more physical desires.

Villeneuve certainly wasn’t averse to putting risqué elements in her story, including more liberal views on women’s sexuality – she even makes a point that, whenever Beauty dreams of the handsome lover, she is “not restrained by the rigid customs of society, and slumber [leaves] her free to act naturally” [11] – so who’s to say she wasn’t hinting that Beauty could carry on an affair in addition to marrying out of duty?

The prince certainly doesn’t have to learn to ignore people’s physical appearances in the 18th-century stories. Yes, Villeneuve’s prince was cursed for rejecting an old and unattractive Fairy, but the story implies he was justified in doing so. The Fairy is characterized as wicked for cursing the prince because, according to the Fairies’ law, she shouldn’t have pursued a human mate in the first place. Beaumont doesn’t even give the Fairy a backstory; she’s simply a “wicked fairy” who cursed the prince for no reason. In the end, he gets to be an attractive man again, and gets a young and attractive wife to boot.

It is “The Tiger’s Bride” that reverses the transformation in the end. Rather than changing the Beast into a man, Carter pulls a Shrek ending (or, rather, Shrek pulled a Carter ending) and changes Beauty into a beast. As she stands naked before the tiger, he licks her human skin away to reveal “a nascent patina of shining hairs.” [12] The message here is that it’s the human body that’s really the disguise for the more-beautiful creature underneath.

But then, the focus is still on physical beauty rather than personality, isn’t it? What kind of person is the Beast when he only frees his prisoner after she obeys his order to show her body, even partially? What kind of “marriage” can come from that sort of relationship?

Review 

 So, what is the message of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it about choosing a marriage based on feelings and virtues rather than appearances? Or is it about choosing socially valued character traits in order to be rewarded with physical beauty? Is it about a woman who controls her own future and sexuality? Or is it about a woman who’s pressured into an arranged marriage against her own desires? Or is it, even, about Stockholm Syndrome? [13]

What do you think? Do you have a favorite version of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it one of the older versions or a new twist?

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[1] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World. Ed. Heidi Anne Heiner. SurLaLune Press, 2013. Kindle ed. Loc. 3410.

[2] Apuleius. “Cupid and Psyche (Adlington Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 966.

[3] Villeneuve. Loc. 2088.

[4] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4182.

[5] Heidi Anne Heiner. “Introduction: Beauties and Their Beasts.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 727.

[6] Maria Tatar. “Beauties and Beasts: From Blind Obedience to Love at First Sight.” Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pgs. 141-142.

[7] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Loc. 2113.

 [8] Ibid. Loc. 2193.

[9] Tatar. Pg. 152.

[10] Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. “Beauty and the Beast.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 5838.

[11] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4468.

[12] Angela Carter. “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Bloody Chamber. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Pg. 83.

[13] Lindsay Ellis, formerly The Nostalgia Chick, has an interesting video on why she thinks Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, Scholarly Musings | Leave a comment

“Don’t you love the cold forest? Doesn’t the howl of the wolf thrill you through with fearful delight?”

I found this awesome reading list on an online syllabus for “Fairy Tales Then and Now,” a course at Rutgers.  The first two units focus on versions of Little Red Riding Hood and disobedience tales like Bluebeard, in versions from Charles Perrault to Margaret Atwood (for this post, I also read a few stories that weren’t on the syllabus).

Note:  There will be spoilers for all of the stories I discuss.  Also, these are pretty adult stories, with mature themes and all.

little-red-riding-hood
illustration by Divica Landrova

According to Robert Darnton, pre-Grimm versions of Red Riding Hood reflected the brutal reality of French peasant life, in which good people did not always get happy endings, and the wicked did not always get punished.  In some of these earlier versions of the story, whether the girl strays from the path or not, she and her grandmother still get eaten by the wolf, and no woodcutter comes to save them.  Even Perrault, in his fairy tales for the more elite members of society, retained this un-happily ever after ending.

The Grimms, on the other hand, provided two happy endings – the familiar one in which the huntsman rescues the girl and grandmother, and a second ending in which the girl outsmarts another wolf at her grandmother’s house, this time by drowning him in a trough full of water used to boil sausages.

Though Perrault is more explicit about his message, both his and the Grimms’ versions make use of the stereotypical man-eating wolf to caution young women against trusting strangers.  “I call them wolves,” says Perrault,

                                   but you will find
That some are not the savage kind,
Not howling, ravening or raging;
Their manners seem, instead, engaging,
They’re softly-spoken and discreet.
Young ladies whom they talk to on the street
They follow to their homes and through the hall,
And upstairs to their rooms, when they’re there
They’re not as friendly as they might appear:
These are the most dangerous wolves of all. (1)

little-red-riding-hood2
illustration by Gustave Dore

Then there are the twisted Red Riding Hood tales by Angela Carter, Jim C. Hines, and Tanith Lee.  These authors blend human and wolf nature together in three werewolf tales. Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” draws from Perrault’s characterization of human wolves as the most dangerous creatures, with their seductive charm that lures the young woman out of the realm of innocence, into a sexual awakening.

Is it a bet? he asked her.  Shall we make a game of it?  What will you give me if I get to your grandmother’s house before you?
What would you like? she asked disingenuously.
A kiss.
Commonplaces of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed. (2)

But in the end, Carter shows how the human side of the werewolf can be tamed through the same technique of seduction.  As in some of the old French versions of the tale, Red Riding Hood does a strip-tease for the wolf, only in this version, the tactic saves the girl from being eaten, because the werewolf, unlike the ordinary wolf, can think of other things besides his stomach.

In Hines’ and Lee’s stories, it is the grandmother herself who is the werewolf, rather than a helpless victim of nature, and when she passes her gift on to her grauddaughter, it is the wolf inside that will save Little Red from the human (or fey) world.  Hines’ Grandmother in “The Red Path” is a deviant from a religious order known as the Church of the Fey; she’s a human illegally using magic reserved for the fairies.  Her granddaughter, Roudette, visits with the intention of saving Grandmother from her wicked ways, but it is Grandmother who saves Roudette in the end, passing on her magic wolf skin so Roudette can save herself and the rest of her family from the Church’s wrath.

Lee’s Anna the Matriarch in “Wolfland” is an eccentric widow who lives in a chateau in the middle of a forest watched over by a wolf goddess.  By eating the goddess’ yellow flowers that contain the wolf magic, Anna gives herself the means to save herself, and her daughter, from an abusive husband.  Now it is her granddaughter Liesl’s turn to receive the gift, explicitly to save Anna from the goddess’ price at the end of her life, but also, implicitly, to protect Liesl herself from unworthy men.

Both Lee’s and Hines’ versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” show that the wolf is something not to be avoided or feared by women, but embraced.  It is humans, or faeries and their human followers, who must be feared instead.

Next:  Bluebeard tales

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1)  Charles Perrault.  “Little Red Riding-Hood.”  The Complete Fairy Tales.  New York: Oxford UP, 2009.  Pg. 103.

(2)  Angela Carter.  The Company of Wolves.  New York: Harper & Row, 1979.  Pgs. 148-49.

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, short stories, spooky | 3 Comments

The Whale Rider

whale-riderWiti Ihimaera.  The Whale Rider.  NZ ePenguin, 2008 (orig. 1987).  Kindle ed.

Rating:  5 out of 5 spears of destiny thrown across a thousand years.

. . . . .

I listed this one in my 2013 year-end review, but never got around to reviewing it.  I just let it percolate and percolate in my head, until now, two re-reads later, I’ve finally decided it’s time.

This story has so many things I love:  magical realism, oceanic folklore, girl power, and it’s seriously setting off my Ocean Girl radar with its talk of a time when people could speak with whales!

ocean-girl-radar

The language and imagery are gorgeous, the plot is well structured, and it’s not like other Chosen One stories I’ve read (though, if I had one complaint, it would be that Kahu is a bit too perfect; she’s more a symbol than a 3-dimensional character…which, then again, isn’t such a bad thing if you look at The Whale Rider as a fairy tale).

The story

The story begins one spring, when a girl is born into the line of men descended from Kahutia te Rangi, the ancient ancestor of the Whangara Maori tribe who rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale.  The current leader of the tribe, Koro Apirana, is disgusted by this break in the male line of descent, but he is even more furious when his grandson names the girl after the Whale Rider.  As for Kahu, she falls in love with her great-grandfather at first sight, and as she grows up, she keeps trying to gain his love, and he keeps pushing her away.

Meanwhile, not having a great-grandson to whom he can pass on his knowledge, Koro keeps looking among the other boys of the tribe for the one who will lead the tribe in the future, all the while missing the signs pointing to Kahu as that person.  But one night, when Kahu is eight, a disaster happens that gives her the opportunity to finally get Koro’s attention.

Not another Chosen One story (or is it?)

Well, on the one hand, this is the Chosen One-iest story I’ve ever read.  Kahu has ALL THE SIGNS pointing to her as The One meant to lead the tribe and save their connection to the sea.  Her parents controversially name her after the famous Whale Rider who founded the tribe.  As a baby, Kahu only likes Maori food.  She’s obsessed with Koro Apirana – who himself is known as “Super Maori” among the younger generation – no matter how much he pushes her away.  She sneaks into Koro’s cultural lessons all the time.  She’s the only one who cries while listening to stories about whale hunting.  She makes whale sounds while staring off into the sea, and the whales seem to listen to her.  She’s at the top of her class and leader of the culture group at school.  And on.  And on.  And on.

Koro must be seriously stubborn in his misogyny to not see all these giant neon signs pointing to the future leader he’s been looking for.

But it’s not the kind of Chosen One story I’ve gotten used to.  Two cases in point:

  • It’s not one of those stories in which the Chosen One is an outsider who sweeps in to save and/or revolutionize an indigenous community (looking at you, Avatar and The Road to El Dorado).

Kahu is part of the community, and though she does challenge the traditional attitude toward females, she’s not the first to do so.  Her great-grandmother, Nanny Flowers, is a descendant of Muriwai, a woman who took charge in a dangerous situation while the male leaders were away and saved her people from being drowned at sea.  Nanny Flowers calls her “the greatest chief of [her] tribe.”

There was also Mihi Kotukutuku, Nanny Flowers’ aunt, who once stood on sacred ground – something women were not supposed to do – and challenged the chief when he yelled for her to sit down.

‘No you sit down! I am a senior line to yours!’ Not only that, but Mihi had then turned her back to him, bent over, lifted up her petticoats and said, ‘Anyway, here is the place where you come from!’ In this way Mihi had emphasized that all men are born of women.  (pg. 81)

Kahu follows in Mihi and Muriwai’s footsteps by sneaking into the young men’s cultural lessons, and just showing all those signs that she, and not one of the young men, is meant to be the one to whom Koro passes the mantle.

  • The story is told from the p.o.v. of a member of the community, rather than focusing entirely on Kahu.

This isn’t just Kahu’s story.  It’s the Whangara community’s story.  In particular, it’s told from the point of view of her uncle Rawiri, who’s sixteen when Kahu is born.  Throughout the story, Rawiri does focus on his experiences with Kahu, but there’s also an interlude in which he describes his four years abroad in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and how they shaped him as a Maori.  The story is as much about his understanding of himself and his community’s destiny as it is about watching the Chosen One fulfill that destiny.

On a side note, some of my favorite parts of Rawiri’s narration were his descriptions of Nanny Flowers and her fights with Koro.

‘He isn’t any chief. I’m his chief,’ she emphasized to me and, then, over her shoulder to Koro Apirana, ‘and don’t you forget it either.’ Squelch, went her fingers as she dug them into the dough.
‘Te mea te mea,’ Koro Apirana said. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
‘Don’t you mock me,’ Nanny Flowers responded. Ouch, went the bread as she flattened it with her arms. She looked at me grimly and said, ‘He knows I’m right. He knows I’m a descendant of old Muriwai, and she was the greatest chief of my tribe. Yeah,’ and Help, said the dough as she pummelled it and prodded it and stretched it and strangled it…

No sooner was I out the door when the battle began. You coward, said the dough as I ducked.  (pgs. 16-17)

Fairy tale and magical realism

The Whale Rider feels like a new legend, a continuation of the original legend of Kahutia te Rangi.  At several points in the story, the narrator repeats the ritual line:

Hui e, haumi e, taiki e.
Let it be done.

This serves to emphasize that the events in Kahu’s life are part of the tribe’s destiny, that they are meant to be.

As a character, Kahu at times seems more like a symbol than a dynamic person, with just how good and kind and dutiful she is – just like the female protagonists in some fairy tales.  She’s devoted to the leader of her tribe, and doesn’t let his rejections discourage her.  She’s a model Maori child, only drinking water and eating Maori food, rather than junk food and soda like other children.  All this serves to mark her not only as the Chosen One, but as a mythical figure in her tribe’s history.

Also enhancing the story’s mythic quality are the elements of magical realism.  According to Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, magical realism serves as a form of “political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective…”  In The Whale Rider, magical realism signals a turning point in the tribe’s history, a time of great change to the status quo.

It starts with the founding of the tribe by Kahutia te Rangi, who made his entrance in the most unusual way – on the back of a whale.  He was so in sync with the whale that he taught him to contract his muscles to make handholds, stirrups and a saddle, as well as a breathing hole for when they dove deep.  And as he approaches the new land, Kahutia threw small spears; some became birds and sea creatures, but the last one was meant to land a thousand years later, when the tribe needed it most.

At several points in the present day story, Rawiri thinks he sees a spear flying through the air and landing nearby.  This signals the coming of another great change, this one to the status quo as Koro Apirana sees it.

Conclusion

The Whale Rider is a tribute to Maori mythology and traditions, and a celebration of powerful women like Muriwai, Nanny Flowers, and Kahu herself.  It’s a beautiful work of magical realism, full of poetic language and imagery, and a unique Chosen One story.

The movie is also pretty neat, but the book goes into much more depth about Maori history and beliefs, and how Kahu fits into it all.

Posted in fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, magical realism, Ocean Girl radar | 1 Comment