Indian ‘Devi’s, Western ‘Diva’s

I first called this piece Indian ‘Devi’s, Western ‘Diva’s And The Dubiously Superheroic Aesthetic of the Slice of Fucked-up Femme-life. Then it sounded too long! But that is what it is all about, really…

It was a matter of real excitement when I got to know about Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Devi’ (the 21st Century Indian superheroine presented by Virgin Comics) from a friend.

devicoverSpoiler Alert: The magnanimous maiden in the cover is not exactly Devi, the goddess, but Daanvi, the demoness– the evil alter ego who, while infesting the human host Tara Mehta (or whoever in the Mehta family she could put her tentacles on), literally grabs her soul and shakes and squeezes till all the traits of greatness, kindness and other beautiful qualities oozes out. Daanvi is as hot and dashing as Devi and her human hosts are. But she is blue…dark-ish. And she does not comb her hair as well…

The following is a list consisting of traits of beauty and ugliness extracted from On Ugliness:

Beautiful: pretty, cute, pleasing, attractive, agreeable, lovely, delightful, fascinating, harmonious, marvellous, delicate, graceful, enchanting, magnificent, stupendous, sublime, exceptional, fabulous, wonderful, fantastic, magical, admirable, exquisite, spectacular, splendid and superb.

Ugly: repellent, horrible, horrendous, disgusting, disagreeable, grotesque, abominable, repulsive, odious, indecent, foul, dirty, obscene, repugnant, frightening, abject, monstrous, horrid, horrifying, unpleasant, terrible, terrifying, frightful, nightmarish, revolting, sickening, foetid, fearsome, ignoble, ungainly, displeasing, tiresome, offensive, deformed and disfigured (not to mention how horror can also manifest itself in areas traditionally assigned to the beautiful, such as the fabulous, the fantastic, the magical and the sublime)

Apparently Einstein had said this once: if we want intelligence in our kids, we should tell them fairy tales; and if we opt for greater intelligence, then more fairy tales it is! Now I am not entirely sure if it is one of those fake quotes that go in the name of the man who is most famous for being the traditional mad scientist role-model for any damn copycat of a CN animator, but the point hits home for us fairy tale suckers. Fairy tales teach us violence, obscurity and absurdity of life; possibly also some morals and hints of those morals being brutally violated while the reader is looking the other way– leaving it to the imagination of the virgin little brains (as if there’s such a thing, says Azzarello’s Batman) to develop on their own, to cope with all the real stuff, you know? This is what Wallace Wood possibly subtly shows in his pornographic adaptation (no prize for guessing of what) Malice in Wonderland: Alice is back after a rendezvous of growing and shrinking many an organs and this is what the withered white-haired mom shrieks out:

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Malice in Wonderland: Wallace Wood

Sex apart, like fairy tales, in many ways comics teach us a lot about life in general. (Let us mostly restrict ourselves to full-length graphic fictions that I have read, okay? Otherwise I might just be able to finish this piece in about another decade.) There is not much that may happily call itself an immoral abomination and get away without being incorporated into comics.

But comics are supposed to be for children (whatever that means: cute? uncomplicated? containing words of no-longer-than-five letters?), if not, then at least funny (…?…?…?), and if not even funny then surely aesthetically super-astounding, that is, a real piece of ass…I beg your pardon…art. So it is a real twisted lesson that comics present to an inquisitive internet-friendly mind; and what are life’s lessons is not preparing oneself for its comic twists! Comics, say for example superhero comics– fairy tales indeed if all two-legged, temporarily flying creatures which are not birds can be tagged as fairies– can be used as great pedagogical means.

 “I think if I ever were a real cartoonist, I wouldn’t be interested in just being funny. In fact, very few cartoons amuse me. I hate most cartoons.” – Pheobe Gloeckner (independent comics maker, writer), The Diary of a Teenage Girl

In the world of comics readers, where a Lulu-prize-winner comics artist Kate Beaton gets appreciative emails from patronizing male readers “saying that it was unusual for humor to come from a girl” or implying the same, superheroines like Gloeckner are the only ones who has the ability to hold the lamp and show us the light. But more about that later. For now, it would do to admit of the fact that more often than not visual representation of a statement has a far deeper, more intense and long-lasting effect than a text. Comics or cartoons– intrinsically underground-ish and pop by nature and hence artsically residing at a very complex level of application and acceptability in both Art and Society in comparison to more universally accepted mainstream art forms– are much beyond a simple medium of visual representation. But if you have reached so far I would assume you are already familiar with all that crap.

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Calvin and Hobbes: Bill Watterson

One thing that I was implicitly taught pretty early in my life, mostly by watching Bollywood with and without my parents hovering over: a good Indian woman necessarily had to have a ‘pleasant’ face (a tricky phrase to use) with a non-committal or rather slightly confused expression on it, long black hair, dark eyes, a sharp nose and not much fat around her waist– may be a little, okay. The fat/ugly ones were all demented or true blue aunty-types. The short haired ones– something not very defined, sort of scary but intriguing! As for superpower comics, all through my childhood I knew of Superman, Batman and Spiderman. Oh yes, Phantom, though he is possibly not a superhero in strict technical sense. And Sabu, but he was just a mutant of some sort – serving the super-intelligent human Chacha Chaudhary, who did not seem that particularly intelligent, to be fair on my measly childhood self. Never heard of Wonder Woman (even though she was the only lady who made it to the Justice League in an at-all-mentionable way); didn’t know that Bat-or-Catwoman existed; nor Mystique, Aurora or other X-such, no way. Echo meant shouting into a deep well. Dream Girl meant ek shayar-ki nazar and not Nura Nal. Lois Lane and Diana were unimportant ‘human’ fillers. Do not at all remember Mary Jane from that era. Gwen Stacy was not even in the movie series! In any case when I was a child, it did not strike as a matter of importance that superheroes may have needs other than thrashing standardized evilness out of my then-green planet. So the DC/Marvel-women – the ones that managed to reach the threshold of a middle-class Indian child’s visual-media-range mostly by adhering to the most popular male superheroes, might as well had not been there. Despite being pretty, they were of no consequence, other than being saved out of various distresses time-to-time. Who cared! I was in distress myself, wasn’t I! and boy wasn’t I ugly! And short-haired too. Did that make me demented or…?

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Ghost World: Daniel Clowes

Obviously what I am getting at is gender-stereotypes and commodification of women in Comics and all that jazz. But it is a much discussed topic and for now let me reminisce a bit about what the world-famous superhero(in)es were to me when I was an…er…innocent little girl like Webby Vanderquack, still aspiring to be accepted and cuddled by Uncle The-Rest-of-the-World.

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Webby and Uncle Scrooge: Disney

First of all, the three Khans of the superhero league– Bat, Super and Spider, the only ones I knew of among all the DC and Marvel hero(in)es– were all well-built male characters, often with a hint of inexplicably but unmistakenly male tragedy in their eyes, apparent even through our b&w EC television screen under heavy snow effect. Secondly, yes, I watched them all strictly on TV and not in the abominably addictive comics books that I, even after twenty years, can barely afford (one book every couple of months is the present rate). I watched them along with Disney TV series such as Mowgli, Ariel, Aladdin, Scrooge and Baloo as well as a Country-made Alice in Wonderland, Shaktiman and B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat– all superhero series in one way or other and all male-hero-centric, except Ariel and Alice but all Alice could do was to dream, to be a nice and pretty girl, continuously manipulated by her fate (Ariel and Jasmine were bit cooler, but still too pretty… way too pretty; nevertheless I was in love with both of them). In any case, watching cartoon series and superhero movies did not at all have the same effect that one got out of reading comics (such as the Tintin or Asterix series that I proudly possessed: again male heroes), where the whole act of relating to the characters was much more communicative on a one-to-one basis, possibly because when I was a child, a book was taken much more seriously than a screen; and also because one could spend more quality time with the characters in a book– as much time as one wanted in fact. And hence the deeper level of involvement of the child who (like a voyeur), was watching these characters undergoing strange, alien, thrilling experiences through the paper-frames, contributed much more to how she grew up.

That way for a long time real Indian mainstream comics, though not a totally alien medium, had mostly been restricted to cartoons (or one-panel comics, as Scott Mc.Cloud calls them) – political, illustrative or pedagogic, graphic stories posed as child-lit such as Amar Chitra Katha or Chacha Chaudhary and even more obscurely situated Indian folk art, to which urban adult barely paid serious attention.

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An Amar Chitra Katha heroine

None of the above had a clear strategy for particularly dealing with women characters as prime subjects. Indian cartoons, as I mentioned, were serving different non-fictional purposes altogether. Chacha Chaudhary certainly had very few women characters to talk about, but let us not go there today. It was only Amar Chitra Katha that emphasized on women characters as well as men – but the stories that were depicted there were based on popular history and mostly Hindu mythology– both ancient and modern– perceived in a socio-politico-religiously biased manner and thus inevitably ignoring or demeaning or over-purifying women. Not being original stories or even reinterpretations, there was not much that the writers and artists of ACK could do regarding the inception and development of women characters. Let us just note for now that the women characters, at least the mythological ones (most of whose facial features looked more or less the same, so one can even think of them as one single ‘traditional Hindu Indian woman’) were pretty, fair-skinned, possessed long shiny black hair as well as a deep navel with the right amount of fat around it; all of them wore choli and kachha and were just and pious damsels with not really much to do out of the box– unless they wanted to get badly punished in the end, which was the fate reserved for the evil bitches.

So, as I was saying, it was a matter of real excitement when I got to know about Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Devi’ from a friend.

Tara Mehta is a ‘bloody whore’ who loves children (not in a derogatory sense, no no). She is ‘kept’ in a luxury apartment by Iyam Bhai the gangster, who is in fact a demon in his human-form and more importantly the right-hand man of Bala, the evil god – self-exiled from Aakashik-the-Pantheon.

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Tara-the-not-yet-Devi goes to meet the slum children (#1)

How a prostitute of a sort turns out to be a goddess, and not just any goddess, but a prototype of The Shakti, who was created by accumulating all the divine powers of the Hindu heaven in order to kill a demon, who apparently was invincible. Devi– the bomb, the super-war-machine– to be dismantled and appointed as one of the god’s homely wife or just to be returned to her elements. But Graphic India’s Devi refuses to be demolished. She refuses to return to the Aakashik and moreover, learns to appreciate the act of sharing powers with her human host Tara, who is a fallen woman by profession. This shared system of power sometimes takes Tara’s (once a ‘kept’ who now ‘keeps’ the goddess) dilemmas to the dimension of complexity comparable to that of Batman – possibly the most complex mainstream comics character till date. Her fight is essentially with herself, though in a more (or less?) ‘masked’ fashion than Batman’s because after all Batman does not have the luxury of carrying around divine entities in his meta-system.

Tara-the-Devi is allowed her moments– to treat men like little children whom she is responsible for– not to nurture but to protect or rebuke as necessary. In return, the way men behave towards Devi is not very sexual either (be it for censor-board reasons or that-is-how-Hindu-India-looks-at-its-daughters-reasons or not). It is rather appreciative, which I find refreshing after chewing on ACK for decades. The ‘Devi’ series gave birth to another superheroine– possibly a more successfully drawn tragic-hero than Devi herself– Kratha, the lone combatant Apsara– a nemesis turned into a friend and a vicious fellow-fighter. Although, even with her duality, as of now Kratha is definitely a more monochromatic character than Devi.

Starting from image quality and the cheeky (sometimes a bit tiring at that) dialogues to the continuity and variation of the story-line– ‘Devi’ has been well-initiated indeed.

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Devi meets Kratha (#3)

Being a prototype of a Hindu goddess, Devi is still bound to undergo the cultural contracts thrust upon her. It is true that her Heaven consists of quite an international crowd: a Father Almighty drawn as the Christian image of God or The Little Mermaid’s father, a War God looking like an Iron Man villain, Kama drawn in the shadows of Cupid-the-Gay, Ra– dragged out of his pyramid, Kapital (may Marx rest in peace) and I kid you not– Interface– “the Sultan of Style and Soundbites, the Badshah of Broadband and Blab, the Impresario of Image-building and Internets, the Messiah of Media and Messaging […] Say Hello to Paris for me, woncha?” As for the mundane villains, there is a perfect Mumbai villain stereotype– gangster ‘Ismael Bhai’, so that bit is obvious to tears. All these are notions compatible with the heroics of the neo-Hindu superbusy elite, who are indeed the target readers of this comics after all. Devi is here to sell. Let us not have any illusions about her being something beyond that– coming from where she is coming from. And where is that?

Coming to the indestructablity of superheroines– in this regard Devi wins over Azzarello’s Hope, who remains a docile machine totally under control of its creator please-call-me-Lex Luthor; well almost, but even the bit about Luthor’s emotional dependency on Hope is projected to hail the ‘human’ in him as against the demigod in the blue suit: Superman. But man-made Hope serves a purpose– precisely of denying the god that Superman was for Metropolis, whereas what purpose does the god-made Devi serve? And for whom?

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Luthor and his Hope: Lex Luthor: Man of Steel: Brian Azzerello, Lee Bermejo, Dave Stewart

No, nor is Devi an all-of-a-sudden-too-stretched-for-us sex-toy like Manara’s Spider Woman (okay, may be a little so). Devi is interesting on her own accord precisely because Tara Mehta, residing in her personal heaven and hell, has the potential of being a not-entirely-black-and-white character. In fact Lex Luthor and Tara Mehta both have the same hope of celebrating the victory of man over the gods. The gods of Aakashik, the gods of Metropolis, who reign over the mortals with the aid of their nonhuman superpowers, with condescending concerns. And now some of the humans have started availing similar superpowers but refusing to join the league of the gods. Their feet are firm on the ground, they are indulging into some of the human traits, such as romance for Hope, but not all, such as rage (in the form of the demoness) for Devi. They question the acts of the gods but in that process, often identifying with their aggressors, leaves a lot of disturbingly open-ended questions through their own acts.

At this point i must also say a few words of praise regarding the purely decorative quality of the Devi images, which after all is one of the most important quality-determining factors in a graphic story, traditionally. The entire Devi graphic team (of which many are non-Indians and not a single woman is to be found in the whole team! But so-the-what!) is so efficient that they can easily compete with (possibly even win for some of the panels) the comics-publisher-giants from the West, who have clearly been the fundamental inspiration behind Devi. The transitions of Devi, Daanvi and Tara– the goddess, the demoness and the human– have been articulated very efficiently.

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A Manara-ish Devi calling out to Bala in Sunny Deol’s style (#1)

More than Devi’s reluctance to go into any of the political issues relevant to present-day India as well as her conveniently oversimplified choices regarding villification and treatment of bad men (both traits inherited from her Western ancestors), what bothers me is her exaggerated beauty and her denial of rage (which reminds me of one of Lynda Barry’s hundred demons: Hate! The child Lynda is instructed by her mother as well as her friend’s mother- both of whom clearly hated the other. Disliking somebody was okay, detesting was okay too, even calling somebody ‘vomit from an old pig’ was okay, but hateai n’ako! Never!).

Who are the humans that Devi represents? Which of us benefit from the godly as well as humanly powers incorporated in her? Because as far as it seems to me, preaching the sermons of peace and at the same time violently thrashing popular villain prototypes is taking the easy route that we, the humans, are already capable of. We do not need a goddess or a superhero for that! In Devi #3, a poor boy had to die, being severely beaten by his father, so that Devi could do nothing and delve into her personal battle with Daanvi, not to give in to mean traits such as revenge! For a moment the reader thinks that oh, there she touches the folds of political complexity regarding what makes a man a villain. But the moment is gone, and there she is, watching and enjoying Ismael beating up his own men with a cricket bat, with a slightly confused goddesses’s commentary running in her mind, and a slightly confused reader’s thoughts about her actual utility. The next moment she is fighting some other divine thug. Devi is buried too deep in her own shit to be saving me. And what is worse, she is continuously on denial.

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Devi vs. Daanvi vs. Tara: Devi #3 (nice paneling though, haan?)

The worshipers of Devi look too much like a bunch of militant Hindu priests to be considered as anything else and the only Muslim characters in the whole series are certain ‘Bhai’s, notorious criminals. Given her origin, where else could Devi have fit them in? So, it is surely not a secular India that she represents. Nor is it a caste-free India or naively speaking, an India that works towards gaining rights for those who do not have it…in short, none that may actually work towards changing the existing state of anybody in the real Indian world, or even a tiny corner of it like the territorial Tara Mehta’s Sitapur.

A digression: considering the above, it was not a very surprising revelation, dug out of an advertisement-page of a shady Spider Girl comics, that the mighty Devi-illustrator Mukesh Singh was none other than the winner of the INR 12,000/- worth statue of Superman (hands joined firmly on the crotch) for his massive and crafty painting of the duo: Superman and…er…Hanuman. A painting that Singh describes as Superman meeting the “ultimate man”, visually in the same spirit as Little Prince’s Flower meeting Jack’s Bean Stalk.

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Superman meets Hanuman (Gotham Comicsl)

Is it a feminist India then, where she may have a more suitable role of a hero?

It is exasperating that in Singh’s doodles, Shekhar Kapur’s Devi has the same Amar Chitra Katha face and perfectly well-shaped body (though few shades darker and for all practical purposes more muscular); that to fit into the role of a Mother Almighty, she has to be nice to little children as if to repent for her initially presented low life. One can only hope that Indian superhero comics would indeed reach a new height with Devi, if she is able to outgrow her present constraints, which personally for me- a woman reader going through the works of women comics makers and analyzing women comics characters- is a bit like going back to square one, while pretending to be advancing beyond traditions (in that context, though molded out of the same element of religious feminine power, Priya’s Shakti is far more approachable, easier to empathize with and not so obviously for sell). In spite of its obviously modern-Indianized components keeping at per with the Indian pro-elite religio-corporate perestroika, Devi-the-superheroine does not have anything new to offer to me, an Indian woman.

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Priya’s Shakti

Talking about disappointment, let us shift to the international market again. Virtuosity is one quality that mainstream women comics makers and characters alike have not been able to evade. Possibly it was none other than that exaggerated virtuosity that ‘transgressed’ to their irresistible ‘violatability’ in a more marginalized, rather tabooed media; more precisely this is what has made them so popular among the Tijuana Bibles, the great Underground Comix mafias, Anime pornography or such like. Also, a popular method of naming women comics characters have descended from the lineage of naming superheroes, for example Weather Woman appeared as an ambitious lady who flashes her assets to get job promotions in the weather-reporting department of a television broadcast company (not going into the politics of right or wrong, or even the randomness of it).

Weather Woman aka Weather Report Girl

Now DC, Marvel and the rest of them are coming up with more and more women characters with super powers as well as problematic issues which are more humane and cannot really be solved using a lightning ball or a glowing lasso of enslavement. Adolescence and romance-related problems have traditionally been part of the legacy but now the big houses are coming up with more contemporary, even controversial topics such as Lesbianism, Transexuality and various other incompatibilities with gender-stereotypes, Religion and some other socio-political aspects. In fact let us for a moment compare Tara Mehta and Selina Kyle aka the Catwoman, who despite being considered as a major super-character has no super power, is a thief, sometimes is black and sometimes is an ugly, fat pimp and who is often unwelcome and self-exiled from the American superhero league. In this regard, she is a greater character than Tara. Tara at least has Devi. Catwoman has nobody other than the girls she occasionally saves and temporarily mentors (and occasionally, for a panel or two, she has Batman of course, but both of them know it’s never gonna happen!). Incidentally, what turns out to be a not entirely unexpected piece of good news is, this lone feline lady might have finally found a mate in her standby Eiko Hasigaway, as the happy announcement is made public by the Catwoman author on Twitter: the answer is “Yes. It’s canon.” Selina Kyle is now officially  bisexual.

Can Tara Mehta do it too? She does not seem that much into men anyway. My guess, she cannot. On another small note of digression, let us hear what the living controversial superheroine Arundhati Roy says in one of her characteristic critiques of the same Shekhar Kapur’s famous film The Bandit Queen, the superdacoit:

I would have thought that this was anathema to the whole point of the Phoolan Devi story. That it went way beyond the You-Rape-Me: I’ll-Kill- You equation. That the whole point of it was that she got a little out of control. That the Brutalized became the Brute.

The film wants no part of this. Because of what it would do to the Emotional Graph. To understand this, you must try and put Rape into its correct perspective. The Rape of a nice Woman (saucy, headstrong, foul-mouthed perhaps, but basicaly moral, sexually moral) – is one thing. The rape of a nasty/perceived-to-be-immoral womall, is quite another. It wouldn’t be quite so bad. You wouldn’t feel quite so sorry. Perhaps you wouldn’t feel sorry at all.

which says a lot about Devi too. In fact Roy’s article as usual raises a lot of questions peeping through the rage, disgust, pain and often an over-talkative penmanship that she cannot help. So, at this point, it seems to be anybody’s guess how Tara-the-Devi is going to emerge in the future, and the answer to a question asked several paragraphs earlier is no, Devi cannot suddenly come out of the gender-closet, or any closet whatsoever, because coming out of a closet is a process, not a divine miracle. Devi is doomed to be the good girl. But then, one never knows. It is not clear how elastic the directorial leash attached to the Devi ensemble is. May be this is the point one should start praying for a spoof or a pornographic version that would do the job that needs to be done.

May be the message is that it does good to remain within the leashes unless Tara Mehta is ready to risk her stomach to be fed to the eagles or her uterus to be operated out by Nationman-the-Supervillain without having informed her, as was done to another Devi, also known as Phoolan.

Bala (Devi #1)

Bala (Devi #1)

It is true that the goddess and the human are indeed supporting each other’s morals in such an obvious way that it might be a futile hope for Devi to go anywhere beyond the popular Indian heroics. On the other hand Selina Kyle is not even a hero per se. She is often seen to be hanging around with mysterious purposes at precisely the wrong places at the wrong moments with quite the wrong people. So it goes for the super intelligent Silken Floss in Will Eisner’s Spirit or Mystique– the Marvel mutant– another possible transgender, for that matter. These characters belong to a shady region between the ‘white’ virtuosity of the heroes and the ‘dark’ vitriol (albeit attractive) of the villains– counter-establishment in many ways. And precisely for that reason they mostly remain mere supporting characters. It is the extremely good heroes and the abominably evil villains who hold the two ends of the stories, stealing the limelight. But however much these superheroines of the gray region toss and turn in their socio-intellectual slumber, they are still doomed to bear the perfect figure of a woman who looks equally sexy in a choking combat-suit, a choking party-wear or a choking everyday-wear T-shirt, bound by her specific role and purpose in the society of readers/watchers.

Tara Mehta (Devi #4)

Tara Mehta (Devi #4)

So what am I saying? Precisely that Devi is a cool superhero series, but she is not my personal superhero if I actually start reading into it instead of satisfying myself with the comfortable entertainment of moderately mindless page-turning.

Wimmen's Comix cover

Wimmen’s Comix cover

Commodification of women through mainstream art is something so deep-rooted that it is a waste of time to judge that at this point (as the immensely wise rule #34 states: If it exists there IS porn in it). What makes it interesting in the context of mainstream comics is that how it slowly sheds some of its more superficial aspects and penetrates deeper by claiming to have disappeared already. Such as, when it comes to the super women, it is that same sexualized body, but draped in smarter, funkier clothes, skilled at the badass street-smart slangs but retaining the moral values– most notably the traditionally accepted pureness of heart – love thy neighbor and her children (but not her husband) as long as they are not planning to destroy the earth or something. Even Sarah Essen could not get through Commissioner Gordon in Year One, in spite of both being non-super humans. That’s DC (or rather, the United States) for you, because being one of the most commercially successful comics sellers of the world, they would not fail to notice the popularity of the traditional, largely black and white moral virtue, in spite of a certain (desired) coolness, among the majority of the buyers. Moral saleability is one of the most (possibly the most) important feature in the development of character of a superhero– male or female alike. And what is the first such signal of virtue but physical beauty? There has been only one Quasimodo in two hundred years and he did not get the chick; only one Shrek, who sort of fell from the glory of the league of ugly heroes, when it was made clear to the audience that if he was to be a human, he would be just the handsome hulk (not that he is not cute as an ogre); it was rather a little treat to watch Shrek The Third, where the classical fairy-tale pretty princesses were made fun of, even villified.

But then comics is one medium that is bound to stereotype its characters– being a representational and basically minimalistic form. Comics commodify men too along with imposing virtue on them. That is what the Tijuana-spoof of Plastic Man, who can shape himself as apparently harmless inanimate objects, mocks as the Tijuana version of the superhero uses his powers in order to catch unaware babes.

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Tijuana Bible’s Plastic Man

Flexorman who cannot do his laundry, Toyman or Winslow Schott– the pedophile-bomb-maker DC beast, Birdman– the recent Hollywood craze, all are– sometimes self-referential– recreations in reaction to the commodification and the stereotypes. In comparison to superhero spoofs, super heroines have not been much discussed (unless as Wonder Sluts), or not even very intelligently spoofed (say, in comparison with the fairy-tale spoofs, once they got out of fashion), which is (not) surprising. Until Kate Beaton saved us (she does both male and female, you see, no feminist hangovers…):

Kate Beaton @ Hark, a Vagrant

The other aspect of super heroines is that of ‘victimization of the past’. Despite or before having superskills they are abducted and ‘manhandled’ in a way that sells well– not that there is anything deeply wrong there any more; but the abuse of superwomen (say for example Catwoman, Modesty Blaise (she is almost super– I’m sure she secretly flies), our own Snake Woman of Virgin (now Liquid) Comics, India and so on), and the way they eventually shrug it off, and gives it back through a moral battle involving extreme physical violence and contra-violence, have a two-fold character– of being the sexy victim and later of being the kinky combatant. Last but but not the least– the saga of abuse and ‘virtuous revenge’ is like a test for these women for being selected as an important supporting character of one of the male biggies – Super or Bat or one of the ‘X’s. A fiery ass that can be tamed only by the larger-than-life hero, who eventually moves on in order to bear his male cross of superloneliness . She is monoromantic and vulnerable while with this monk.

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Wonder Woman and Batman

It is her destiny to be hooked up to a hero, because she is sort of a hero herself, but more importantly because that is what the superhero-comics-lineage demands. A worthy woman needs to counterbalance the male-centric mega-epochs. The Wonder Woman is not after all a self-sufficient existence, though she could have been so. But neither is she allowed to have an independent life of her own out of the superhero groove.

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Wonder Woman refuses Mike, a common man: Gotham Comics (DC)

Another example is the porn-watcher’s favorite Liz Sherman Hentai– the fiery bit is literal here– and yet the Hellboy gets it all! Oh at least Modesty still is the boss…

Fun fact from random site:

Liz was raised in a strictly religious family and attended Catholic school as well as twoce-weekly Mass. Liz was convinced that the fires [caused by her pyroknesis] were her fault – punishment for some unknown sin – and she turned more and more to prayer as a means of managing her guilt.

According to Theresa, who wrote to us with this information, Liz’s Catholicism “isn’t really apparent in the comics, except for perhaps her guilt complex.”

Mmm.

So, who are my personal superheroines? And here comes the valiant league of ordinary looking Madwomen with no super power other than an ability to look into one’s own eyes and try not to blink. The distasteful queens of the autobiographical Slice of Life genre.

In every century, philosophers and artists have supplied definitions of beauty, and thanks to their works it is possible to reconstruct a history of aesthetic ideas over time. But this did not happen with ugliness. Most of the time it was defined as the opposite of beauty but almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness, which was relegated to passing mentions in marginal works. – U. Eco (Introduction to On Ugliness)

And art-wise, which medium is more marginalized than comics!

The ugly Divas of comics did not pop up in the West one fine morning. When women in America first entered the comics scenario, it was the Roly-poly babies and the Pretty-girl comics. Then came the Flapper movement. Then the Detective and the Adventure ones. Miss Fury, Flying Jenny,…the glamorous ‘Diva’s of the Golden Age of Comics (created by equally glamorous ‘Diva’s- a notable difference from the earlier superheroines introduced by male artists) started pouring in. But women in comics- both as creators and subjects were still following the path that had been paved for them by their male predecessors. And they were still, superannoyingly and/or superboringly pretty and well-shaped. They remained the comics role models for American women for decades- apt ancestors of the costume-hero(in)es who were to appear soon in the comics scenario.

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A historical note: to get a glimpse of possibly the first formal comics-superheroine Fantomah, take a look here: strongly recommended, more so because the basic equation of obscure judgment of good or bad among superheroines does not seem to have changed much. The world of popular superheroines is still equally bizarre, thoughtless in its patronizing feminism and faceless- quite literally, time to time, in case of Fantomah! Though I must admit, I prefer her  (she is worth a surfing, I tell you) fifty times over the supermodels packed into national comics-heroes.

Fantomah

Fantomah transforming

Another important stream of Indian comics that I had only briefly and implicitly mentioned (when I uttered ‘Phantom’) earlier– Indrajal Comics– was style-wise and theme-wise largely inspired by such adventure comics as above, though it came to exist almost after four decades. Although it started as a series in English, it later became immensely popular and started getting translated into many regional languages all over India. The heroes of the books were again mostly male. While rereading some of the highly-valued vintage Indrajal hard-copy editions that I possess, I found a Bahadur story, which might be of some interest. In a story spread over 25 pages, all the woman vigilant Bela (Neki, aur puchh puchh? Grrr, wait I want to kill someone, now!) had to do, while the male characters fought, beat up villains and rode fancy bikes, was taking her dog for a walk along with following a criminal (1 panel), copying the plate-number of a car down that was of no use later (1 panel) and at the end, ‘hijacking’ Bahadur for a hinted romantic trip once the villains had learned their lessons (2 panels).

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Bahadur: Aabid Surti

Going back to the West, Trina Robbins and others, first through Wimmen’s Comix and later through Friends of Lulu did eventually take up the Slice of Life genre of autobiographical comics, with a lot of anger and pain,

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but also a lack of direction, which seems to be rather an intrinsic character of feminist movement in many instances, possibly due to its critical and combative nature over a creative and formative one.

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All evidences suggest that it was indeed the sixties’ beauty Aline Kominsky Crumb who, inspired by Justin Green‘s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, appeared as the first among the self-uglified autobiographical ‘Diva’s. The nature of self-victimization in her work was different than the Wimmen’s Comix bunch, who raged lot more than her but did not really cross the barrier of traditional beauty in a female body, whereas Aline in between her lamentation and guilt trips was consistently strong at her refusal of the male gaze. In her autobiography Need More Love, she points out in a particularly emancipated feminine way of being a polite and totally endearing bitch, the basic difference of her viewpoint from the Trina Robbins camp:

I do not mean to downplay the importance of the Feminist Movement that was gathering steam. There were, and are very crucial issues: […] But in those days, I saw a lot of hysteria and hypocrisy. Women claimed they wanted sensitive men who treated them as equals, and then ended up with bad boy pirates and cowboys. And women who supposedly have it all seemed stressed and miserable. If there has been any progress in male-female relations, it is not obvious to me. […] I liked her [Trina] a lot, but balked at being controlled by anyone. She tried to get me to dress differently. Once she told me I should wear long flowing dresses to distract from my big unattractive legs.[…] (P:139)

However Aline’s work, despite being of immense comicademic interest, at some point starts getting slightly repetitive– specially as almost half a century has passed since when she made her spectacular entry to the comics world. In my eyes, it is Phoebe Gloeckner who emerges as the first superpowered teenager who dazzles the reader with her stark questions and some starker answers (on behalf of the professional medical illustrator that she was) that many of the lion-heart supercomics-readers would rather have not asked for.

Phoebe Gloeckner (A Child's Life and Other Stories)

Phoebe Gloeckner (A Child’s Life and Other Stories)

Lynda Barry took her zitty, liced, pathetic adolescence to a real superbattle by introducing us to her One Hundred Demons and dared the reader: find your own and fight them!

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One Hundred Demons: Lynda Barry

Julie Doucet with her dark circles, clinical hysteria, dopey habits and sloppy nature seems to be a hundred demons times more lovable than Katy Kane and Katy Keene put together along with all of their and their boyfriends’ fortunes. But hey, now that Kane is fighting with her DC mentors for an official stamp on her relationship with her roommate Maggie Sawyer, I do not mind her much. I am not even too jealous of her inherited property comparable to the Wayne industry any more. But Keene-the-rich-brat is a different matter altogether. If I catch her wearing my beloved Selina Kyle’s costume ever again…

Katy Keene: Bill Woggon

Then there are Marjane Satrapi (not based in America unlike the rest that I refer to here, but I mention her all the same due to the huge influence she had on me during my early comics-reading period), Carol Tyler, Gabrielle Bell and many others who are less aggressive but equally ‘ugly’ and (hence?) introspective. One common trait in the works of all these goddesses is what Hillary L. Chute, in her Graphic Women, describes as using “shame as productive”:

Kominsky-Crumb’s political project is to visualize how sexuality, even when disruptive, does not have to be turned over to the gaze of the other. People by “excessive” bodies, her so-called uncivilized work, which disrupts a masculinist economy of knowledge production, demonstrates that a crucial part of the struggle to represent the realities of gender beyond sexual difference involves our writing – and drawing – aesthetic elaborations of different ways of being with our sexuality. It is important that Kominsky-Crumb acknowledges both enjoyment and shame; her work does not simply celebrate transgression. In admitting to shame, and visually and verbally detailing it along with joy, Kominsky-Crumb, as with figures such as Silvan Tomkins, suggests shame (or what she called humiliation or “yumiliation”) as productive.

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Aline Kominsky-Crumb

But then may be that indeed is being super– confronting oneself and challenging the world with what one has. These heroines are super ugly, super fucked up, super ordinary. And that is what makes them my heroines. It is a tough world as it is and as struggling women in an often violent surrounding, we all need encouragement for simply existing. There are two types of ‘super’s that we can look up to. One can be the glorious winner, who solves problems and the other can be the loser who may or may not be able to accept or embrace her problems but nevertheless lives with it and sometimes, even moves on. It is not easy to write autobiographies you see– opening your soul for others to intervene, dissect and judge– unless one has come in terms with many a screw-ups. Nothing is more heroic to make it through in a visual medium. If you are into the Slice of Life genre because you want to embrace the sadness of life, there is nothing sadder than accepting oneself as one is. And if you are into funnies, once an autobiographer is liberated from her natural defending tendencies, there is nothing funnier.

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I had a Mehri since I was two years old. She was about ten years older to me. So this is a terrain that I could relate to, when a child Satrapi wants to have divine powers in order to ban a maid having to eat separately from her employers. On the other hand it took me years to come in terms with having different densities of hair in my two armpits (on top of the disastrous event of having hair in the armpits at all). Thus when I see Satrapi baring these yumiliating details on print, she and her printed-self turn into a multilayered hero to me. For me, Satrapi’s Svetlana, the old hag of a cook in a cafe in Austria, who asks Satrapi which customer pinched her ass and then spits on his order while chanting “God forgive me”, is one of the greatest heroes that I have encountered in comics.

If the question is about the quality of drawing and craftiness of representation, not all the slice-of-lifers drew with a deliberate “donkey’s tail” like Kominsky-Crumb (despite her being a great painter in the expressionist style). Phoebe Gloeckner is possibly one of the craftiest and the most versatile ones among comics-makers when it comes to human-figures. Lynda Barry is a genius of the out-of-the-box mixed media. And if the question is about the level of creative talent involved in it, because my superheroines seem to be banking on the reality that has been given to them whereas the traditional superwomen have to develop a (super)plot and work within that, then one should look deeper into the works of these ugly goddesses because a good autobiography is never just a linear story. New questions keep popping up as the characters appear in every panel.

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One Hundred Demons: Lynda Barry

Do we need heroes that we identify with? Or do we need heroes who, even to start with, are far from the point of my existence. Which adolescent hero do I embrace as mine being what I am? Say, Spider Girl– a cool, sexy kid with the following trauma: she has superpowers, so she cannot fit into the society like the ordinary ones; also she has a schoolmate for her boyfriend, who turns out to be the grandson of a villain unmasked by her own father Spiderman. But then she, like her father, has her notions of rights and wrongs at the top of her finger– like a multiple choice answer sheet.

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Spider Girl firmly holding her moral ground (Gotham Comics)

Or Minnie– Phoebe Gloeckner’s adolescent hero, a plump, inglorious, distracted, dopey girl, who bunks classes for having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend and draws cartoons when she is feeling less fucked up than usual?

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Phoebe Gloeckner slipping into an identity vacuum (Diary of a Teenage Girl)

May be both. After all, this is not a multiple choice answer sheet either. But Spider Girl- with her strong moral stance on what is right- intimidates me, whereas Minnie and Kimmie in Diary of a Teenage Girl or Enid and Rebecca in the Ghost World– in spite of telling me on face what I am– jealous, insecure, mean, a liar and a show-off– also tells me that there are others who have been there and seen that and have come in terms with it. My superheroines may not have the solutions but they have at least figured out some real concrete problems. They are not heroes in the classical sense but they are well-observed characters that makes them far more believable. Isn’t that what a hero should be first? Believable? Heroes like Devi lost the believability factor while trying to remain on the predefined right path, that too defined by forces that she, if she had the brains or the time between going gaga over fancy colors and crafty contours, might have needed to fight with in the first place.

This is what Neil Gaiman has to say about character-formation in a story:

If you cared enough about your characters, what happened to them was interesting… It’s important to care about them. About who they are and what they do.. I don’t really care whose side they are on, and they can be monstrous on the outside, or worse, on the inside, but you still have to want to spend time with them.

Since we were on the topic of LGBT and comics-women, let me give an example of another Indian comics (My Beloved: Tina Thomas and Jasjyot Singh Hans) that I found in Mixtape 1, just to acknowledge the little rays of hope that one comes across time to time. It is an eight pages long story that tells a tale of two women in a relationship. It is a story of affection, pain, secrets and disappointments as a perfect love story should be. But for various obvious and not so obvious reasons it is also a story of strength and power – in spite of, or rather within fear, deception and a hopeless demonstration of lack of societal ethics – an ethics that is often rather imposed on us. Not only that, I adore this little story just for the sake of its simple treatment and a quiet demonstration of courage while handling the subject of lesbianism in a graphic narrative medium without being sucked into theoretically richer, stronger, freer and universally well-known statements such as Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic or even Ariel Schrag‘s Potential. If  I have to choose my heroes from the Indian panorama, I would rather go for something like this:

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My Beloved: Tina Thomas, Jasjyot Singh Hans @ Mixtape 1

I also give the above example to reassure myself that alternate comics is being made in India too, through Navayana, MantaRay, Kokaachi, Pao Collective and others, acknowledging and addressing the politics of reality and the reality of politics regarding many issues including gender- not with claims of ‘changing the face of Indian comics’ or ‘creating India’s first superheroine’, but changing and creating all the same, rather silently, as is suitable to this particular medium.

And now, having talked more than what I intended to, I reserve the last word for the great Lunar Baboon and excuse myself to the mall next door; heard that a 34% percent sale on Banarasi capes is going on there…

comicpowersPicture courtesy: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/women-who-conquered-the-comics-world/, http://www.lunarbaboon.com/, http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php, http://io9.com/5914178/the-bizarre-history-of-superhero-porn-nsfw, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Report_Girl, http://exibitionistas.blogspot.in/ and personal collections.

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